Sunday, September 30, 2012

GOP Faults Obama for Not Using a Looper

Every time you kick back, thinking the GOP can't go any farther over the edge, some fool opens his or her mouth (that's right Michelle Bachmann, we're thinking of you) and lets fly with another absurd claim.

This week it was John Sununu's turn to take the train to Crazy Town, U. S. A. In an interview with the New York Times, he claimed President Obama didn't deserve credit for killing Osama bin Laden because he could have done it sooner.

That's right. Sooner.

There are several possible explanations for Sununu's comments.

A. Sununu has seen the movie Looper and believes Osama could have been sent back to the past and killed by President Obama in, oh, say 2009. No, Why not September 10, 2001. Hell. Why didn't Obama just go ahead and kill Osama when he was in grade school?

B. Possibly:  Sununu is nuts.

C. Sununu no longer cares about reality because so many supporters on the right have taken up permanent residence in Crazy Town.

How else can anyone account for even a tenth of the absurd comments since President Obama took office. We know it can't all come down to racism. No one in the GOP is racist. No...ha, ha. No possible way.

So, let's put ourselves in conservative shoes and try to understand a few of their most cherished beliefs:

OBAMA DIDN'T FAIRLY WIN THE ELECTION IN 2008. The American people loved Bambi from the North and grumpy Grandpa McCain. ACORN stole the election. Dead people and illegal aliens stormed the polls. Unregistered people voted, once, twice, oh, the horror...a thousand times! They dressed up as Sasquatch and Ronald McDonald and the Tin Man and still nobody checked ID's and stopped them and now we're stuck with a black president! No, no, we're not racist.

OBAMA CAN'T BE WINNING IN THE POLLS NOW. Impossible. You can't fool me, I'm a genius and you people are libertards and I refuse to believe anything that might make me sad. La, la, la, I'm putting my hands over my ears and closing my eyes and if I can't see the polls they don't exist. And if they did, it wouldn't matter because pollsters are part of a vast liberal plot.

OBAMA HAS NO BIRTH CERTIFICATE. So, la, la, la, I don't have to admit that we have a dark-skinned president. Besides, now we have proof that Obama's dad was Frank Marshall Davis, a Communist Party USA propagandist. And we believe that, too, even though it would mean he does have a birth certificate and that proves he's American and can be president; but no, la, la, la, he's still black and I'm closing my eyes really, really tight.

SCIENTISTS ARE LIBERALS/LIARS, TOO. Oh, sure. They claim the Arctic ice sheet was reduced to half it's normal extent this summer; and maybe they do have those "pictures" from space which they claim came from "satellites." Well, then, if all the polar ice is melting, how come I can still get ice out of my refrigerator?

DON'T WORRY IF YOU GET RAPED. Don't listen if your doctor tells you that you're pregnant. He's just a lying scientist of a different type. You can't get pregnant because rape sperm are different. Next week Michelle Bachman is going to prove if you get hit by a bus you're like Superman and can't be crushed. (But if you get hit by a bus and you're gay, you can be cured.)

OBAMA CARE IS SOCIALIZED MEDICINE but Medicare is totally different. Forcing good, upstanding tax payers to pay for socialized medicine for low-income families and kids is what Hitler would have done if he didn't have all those gas chambers. Patriotic conservatives want to save socialized medicine for millions of angry old Tea Party types, instead. So we're going down to the Romney rally with our guns and our walkers...and...okay, if these people weren't so old this one wouldn't even make sense to them.

Well, did we remind you lately that the BUSH TAX CUTS ARE WORKING? Oh, baby!!! All we need to do is maybe send Grover Norquist and a few Tea Party stalwarts back through time to make this conservative fiscal system work. Then we watch the economy grow and grow and grow.

Under President Romney, of course.

Best of all, starting in 2013, the RYAN BUDGET WILL FIX THE DEFICIT. First we're going to reduce taxes by $5 trillion and help struggling billionaires. Then we're going to eliminate all the loopholes the middle class likes to abuse. And the $5 trillion in tax cuts won't add to the deficit because we're going to repeal math.

Romney and Ryan are going to win. If our ticket doesn't prevail there can only be one explanation. The illegal aliens voted again.

You know:  the ones from outer space.

Paul Ryan recently blamed Obama for not saving the GM plant in Janesville, Wisconsin.
Too bad it closed while a Republican was in the White House.
There's never a looper around when you need one.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Education Experts Baffled: SAT Scores Decline Again

OH, THE HUMANITY! All those poor education reformers. It's true! SAT scores fell once again last year.

It's a little dip. True. Still, wasn't No Child Left Behind supposed to fix this mess? Didn't President George W. Bush and a bipartisan coalition in Congress promise that NCLB was going to eliminate racial gaps in education? Didn't politicians guarantee this massive new law would insure that every child was proficient in reading and math by 2014?

States were going to raise all kinds of standards--you're darn tootin'--and if test scores didn't go up they were going to get busy and fire a whole bunch of teachers.

So, it's fair to ask, "How are we doing?" If you're a teacher, and you've been getting your brains beat out by the media for most of the last decade, you see this item in the New York Times and you have to wonder:
For the high school class of 2012, the average score on the critical reading section of the SAT college entrance exam, 496, was down 1 point from the previous year, as was the average writing score, 488. The average math score, 514, was unchanged. Also unchanged: only 43 percent of the 1.66 million test-takers achieved the benchmark score, 1550, that indicates readiness for college. Among students whose parents have bachelor’s degrees, though, 60 percent were college ready. The College Board, which administers the test, says those with the benchmark score have a 65 percent likelihood of achieving a B- or higher grade average in their first year in college.
Down two points last year? Could be a statistical anomaly.

Or: it could be our "leaders" can't tell the difference between s--- and standardized testing. I'm thinking, "Charge of the Light Brigade" here. (More about that later.) First, let's look at the bigger picture. I blogged on this same topic in 2011, when scores also fell. Today, all I have to do is quote myself:

[The] weeks and months are ticking by; and we're now less than three years [two today] removed from a time when reformers promise they can take us to a state of absolute academic perfection, when every child in America will be proficient in reading and math.

By now don't you...have to assume the first sweet fruits of success are finally ripe for picking?

So how is the BIG REFORM PUSH going?

I was heading out the door to run a few errands last week--catch up on chores that went untended while I was pedaling [across the United States on a bike]--when I passed the TV and heard Andrea Mitchell on CNN mention declining SAT scores. Mitchell went on to say that Michelle Rhee would be on after a commercial break to explain.

I was in a hurry that day and didn't get to hear Rhee spout. But I'm sure it was fun. Remember her? The woman with the PLAN to save education? The lady who blames teachers for all the nation's academic failings? 

Anyway, SAT scores fell for high school seniors in 2011. It seemed like that might make reformers weep.

Or, weep again this week. Unless you're Rhee. As head of a school reform organization known as Students First, she's had a good year. At the time of my last post on the SAT's, she was busy putting the final touches on a speech about education to be delivered at Kent State and deciding how much to charge for her wisdom. Hmmm...$35,000 sounded about right...

Maybe Rhee should call her organization "Rhee First," if you think about it.

AFTER ALMOST A DECADE OF "REFORM" under No Child Left Behind, after all the preaching of Rhee and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and a host of others, here's where we land. Since NCLB became law SAT scores are down from 504 to 496 in reading. They're down in math from 516 to 514. Despite billions of dollars spent on all the kinds of reforms reformers have insisted will work, we still don't have one point of gain. And in six short years, since a writing test was instituted, seniors have lost nine points, down from 497 to 488.

I said it last year, I'll say it again today:

Since 2002, when the standardized-testing craze swept America's schools and education experts began acting like zombies in an old science fiction movie--all promising improvement if only we followed them, followed them, followed them--we have been in slow decline.

Rhee, Duncan, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Joel Klein (his long-time chancellor) in New York, Chester Finn Jr., Steven Brill, the producer of Waiting for Superman and various know-it-all governors will, of course, continue to blame America's "school crisis" on classroom teachers and push their own solutions.

We already have way more charter schools, just as they wanted.

We have more vouchers too.

We have way, way more standardized testing.

And when students fail to meet "standards" we "evaluate" teachers, place the entire burden on their shoulders, and fire them by the thousands.

So why isn't this working? We've listened to experts and we're going nowhere fast, unless you count backwards.

I tried to explain it last fall:

Here's the first problem: We allow school reform to be driven by people like Rhee and governors like John Kasich [in Ohio], Scott Walker (Wisconsin) and Chris Christie (New Jersey), who either went to private schools, send their children to private schools, or both. These are people who want to fix the schools they didn't care to attend.

Secondly, we listen to people like Rhee and Duncan who have only the briefest classroom experience, or like Klein, none at all, and lack insight. It's an odd trend, really. If you placed the top ten names in education reform today and all U. S. Secretaries of Education end to end...their classroom service would not equal ONE thirty-year elementary school veteran in Peoria, Pocatello, or Pompano Beach.

...This idea that if only we get better teachers into classrooms then every student can be a success is shallow and simplistic. It's like saying, "If only ministers gave better sermons sin in the United States would disappear."

A year ago, I feared America's education generals were blind. Today, I'm more worried than ever. I'm beginning to think they're not blind. They're arrogant fools. They're like the Earl of Lucan, Lord Cardigan and Lord Raglan, British officers at the Battle of Balaclava (1854), who confused their own orders and sent six hundred cavalrymen of the famed Light Brigade charging down the wrong valley, with Russians on both sides and Russian cannon bottling them up at the end. Every man in the ranks could look down that valley and tell the attack was doomed and at least one junior officer, a Captain Nolan, tried to redirect the attack. But down the valley they thundered and horses and men were cut down by the hundreds. It was bravery wasted and slaughter without gain.

If you read what Wikipedia says about Cardigan's leadership style, you can substitute "Duncan" or "Bloomberg" or "Klein" (except that they compound problems by leading from the rear) and know where we stand in U. S. education in 2012:
Cardigan survived the battle. Although stories circulated afterwards that he was not actually present, he led the charge from the front and, never looking back, did not see what was happening to the troops behind him. He reached the Russian guns, took part in the fight, and then returned alone up the valley without bothering to rally or even find out what had happened to the survivors...After riding back up the valley, he considered he had done all that he could and then, with considerable sang-froid, left the field and went on board his yacht in Balaclava harbour, where he ate a champagne dinner.
Our leaders in education aren't blind. They see where we're going; but they're too arrogant to realize they're "leading" good troops the wrong way. Like Lord Cardigan they have no interest in looking back and even though their policies continue to fail they keep right on giving advice and then go off and drink their champagne.

Or charge $35,000 to give a speech.

I noticed something odd when I pedaled up Tioga Pass into Yosemite on a bicycle.
It's a rise in elevation of 3100 feet in ten miles and I had to do some very serious sweating.
So far: when experts talk about education reform 
the only people they call on to pedal harder are America's teachers.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Romney Wants to be President of Oligarchistan

ONCE AGAIN THE INIMITABLE MITT ROMNEY has stepped into political "doo" of his own doo-doing. As you probably know he was caught on video tape explaining at a fund-raising dinner how much he wants to be president. Just not necessarily President of the United States.

Romney wants to be ruler of Oligarchistan.

Listen to this poor stuffed suit speak and you know he's not ready to be leader of the Free World. Maybe the Super Rich Free World. But not the Free World as we know it.

In fact, listen closely, and it's not even clear that Mitt is safe to go out in the streets and play by himself. The full video is now available online; but here are a few highlights. I have taken the liberty of inserting a regular person's interpretation of what Romney really meant. [See brackets].

The section of his speech that has garnered the most attention:

"There are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what." [We want to convince angry, white voters these people are all lazy blacks on welfare. We won't mention that only 9% of the U. S. population is African American.]

"Alright, there are 47% who are with him, who are dependent on government, who believe they are victims, who believe government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That, that's an entitlement, and the government should give it to them." [Don't all you wealthy donors sitting, uh, here, don't you get angry knowing you're paying taxes so hungry children can eat thanks to food stamps? And, uh, why should we worry about dirty street urchins? Dig in to your fillet mignon and after desert we'll talk about tax shelters in the Cayman Islands.]

"And they will vote for this president no matter what." [They're stupid, see, and we can sit here and feel smug because we're better than them. I can't say that in public, though, because it will make me look like a conceited ass.]

"And I mean the president starts off with 48, 49...he starts off with a huge number. These are the people who pay no income tax." [Guy making $10 an hour. He's piling up the dough, like $21,000 a year. And, and, he won't pay his share? Well, if he can't save enough for college he can borrow from his parents--like almost all of us in this room of privileged elites did. Or he can join the Marines and go to Afghanistan and if he comes back in one piece he can use G. I. Bill benefits. Our kids would do the same, because we taught them responsibility; but they didn't need the money and didn't serve.]

"Forty seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn't connect." [In fact, 8% of workers are out of jobs because the last Republican administration crashed the economy; and now these people want us to keep paying unemployment until they actually find, uh, real work].

"So he'll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean, that's what they sell every four years." [Of course, since the freeloading 47% don't pay taxes, President Obama will be correct; the only people who are going to gain under my economic plan are people like us.]

"And so, my job is not to worry about those people." [Because, really, we don't care about them. Those homeless veterans. I'm not a homeless veteran. I'm not a veteran at all, because when they were serving their country, I was doing missionary work in France. In 1968, I was busy spreading the gospel of Jesus. 'Love your neighbor' and stuff.]

"I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives." [Those elderly folks on fixed incomes. They don't pay a dime and sit around crying about being victims of aging and dementia and want free health care. And those irresponsible homeless kids. I mean, come on two-year-olds! Suck it up and lift yourselves out of poverty!]

LATER, MITT EXPLAINS the facts of Romney Life:

"Ninety-five percent of life is set up for you if you were born in this country." [See, I grew up in a beautiful home, with a supportive family. I was born smart and attended an elite private school and got to go to college. I used my family name to start Bain Capital. So I never come within a hundred miles of a poor person, if I can avoid it, and that's why this dinner is such a pleasure, because I am here among 'my people,' the fantastically rich.]

"And, I remember going to, ah, uh. Sorry to bore you with stories. When I was back in my private equity days, we went to China to buy a factory there. It employed about 20,000 people. And they were almost all young women between the ages of about 18 and 22 or 23. They were saving for potentially becoming married. And they were in these huge factories, they made various, uh, small appliances." [Ha, ha, "Buy American!" No, no, I'm just kidding.]

"And, uh, we were walking through this facility, seeing them work, the number of hours they worked per day, the pittance they earned, living in dormitories, with, uh, with little bathrooms at the end of maybe 10, 10 room, rooms. And the rooms they have 12 girls per room." [And our first reaction--really, our only reaction--was holy crap, we can pay these girls nothing and make a killing--and then we can hire accountants and lawyers to cut our tax rates down to, like, 14%.]

"Three bunks on top of each other. You've seen you've seen them." [They used to call this kind of factory a 'sweatshop' and these kind of living arrangements 'serfdom.' But this the Romney Plan in action. Low wages for workers. High profits for corporations. More money for us in this room! Because having a personal fortune of $250 million is never enough.]

(Someone in the audience: "Oh...yeah, yeah.")

"And, and, and around this factory was a fence, a huge fence with barbed wire and guard towers. And, and, we said Gosh! I can't believe that you, you keep these girls in! They said, no, no, no. This is to keep other people from coming in. Because people want so badly to come work in this factory that we have to keep them out. Or they will just come in here and start working and, and try and get compensated. So we, this is to keep people out." [I think you can tell right there, by the way, that I am ready to lead this great nation and stand up to China. I've heard their government arrests anyone who uses the Internet to complain. But we're talking money, here, not human rights and dignity. And if I understand one thing in this world, it's not people, not even Americans. It's money. I'm Mitt Moneybags. Vote for me!]

"And they said, actually Chinese New Year as the girls go home, sometimes they decide they've saved enough money and they don't come back to the factory. And he said, So on the weekend after Chinese New Year there will be a line of people hundreds long, outside the factory, hoping that some girls don't come back. And they can come to the factory." [Can you believe how these crony capitalists pile up fortunes within a corrupt communist system? I admit it:  I was impressed.]

"And, and so as we were experiencing this for the first time, going to see a factory like this in China some years ago. The Bain Partner I was with turned to me and said, You know, ninety-five percent of life is settled if you are born in America. This is, uh, this is an amazing land and what we have is unique and fortunately it is so special we are sharing it with the world. There's the perception that, Oh you were born with a silver spoon, you never had to earn anything and so forth. And, uh, frankly, I was born with a silver spoon." [That's right. I had it pretty much made from the moment I snuggled under the covers in my first bassinet. That's why I say things like, 'Well, I didn't make much last year giving speeches, only $374,000.' I don't hang around with the divorced mother of three, earning $36,000 and trying to insure her kids have a better future and maybe she gets her kids on reduced price school lunches.

Nope, I only hang out with folks who have money to buy show horses. I have the show-horse-owner demographic sewed up.]

"My heritage...My Dad as you probably know was the Governor of Michigan and was the head of a car company. But he was born in Mexico. And, uh, had he been born of Mexican parents I'd have a better shot at winning this. But unfortunately, he was born to American parents living in Mexico." [I won't mention his Mormon roots, because many of the voters I'm pandering to by trying to conjure up an image of dark-skinned welfare cheats, would react just as emotionally against me if reminded of my religious beliefs.]

"He lived there for a number of years. And, uh, uh, I say that jokingly but it would be helpful to be...uh, Latino." [But we know, sitting here now, that a huge chunk of that 47% we don't like is Latino, uh. And. Uh. We're having trouble figuring out how to win their votes, and it's hard, you know, because sometimes when I speak I sound like a giant douche bag.]

(Chuckles, laughter from the audience.)

Mitt can relate. He can feel your pain.
It's tough, sometimes, counting all your millions.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Mitt Romney and the Green State Strategy to Win

IT'S LOOKING A BIT SADDER for Mitt Romney with each passing day. No, no. He's still got his megabucks. His hair still looks great. The Mrs. seems nice. He has all those homes. And a car elevator would really be cool. But, hey, we all know money can't buy happiness, although short of happiness, as someone once said, it's Katie bar the door.
Lately, it's starting to look like money can't buy a chair in the Oval Office, either.
When last seen Mitt was making stupid comments about Egypt and Libya and being attacked for his stupid comments, even by members of his own party. Meanwhile, he's still rummaging around in the attics at his various homes, trying to find his old high school year book, and maybe his 2007 tax returns. Nice fellow, Mr. Romney. Maybe kind of an empty suit.
Still, America's bazillionaires love him and they're doing what they can to save a campaign that has all the spice and real substance of tapioca pudding. The Koch brothers, David and Charles, sons of Fred C. Koch, one of the founding lights of the John Birch Society are all in. (The Bircher motto goes like this: "Communism is Terrible; Everything We Don't like is a Communist Plot, Including, but not Limited to, Democrats, Labor Unions and Fluoridated Water.) So is Sheldon Adelson, owner of gambling casinos all over the world, the old codger whose company may soon be under investigation for money laundering.
Adelson, alone, has epressed a willingness to spend $100 million to defeat Barack Obama in 2012. Because we all know if Obama wins the Commies win and Adelson will have to cough up 3% more in taxes. In related news, the stock market hit 13,539.86 yesterday, on positive reports for U. S. home builders. That's right. More proof the Commies in the construction business are winning.
So: How's it going for Mr. Mitt Romney? Actually, according to RealClearPolitics, it's not going so good. Even the last Fox News opinion survey had President Obama up my 5 percentage points, 48% to 43%, which had to have Gretchen Carlson and all the blond Fox Talking Puppets spitting out their Wheaties when they reported the news. Worse yet, the blue-state tide seems to be rising faster than the GOP can shovel red-state cash to stop it. Gallup has Obama up 7, CNN/Opinion research 6. The other polls are closer, but all are currently showing blue. Well, no, not Rasmussen. They had the incumbent trailing by 1 point Wednesday, but Rasmussen was the one poll, in 2008, that consisitently understated Mr. Obama's chances of winning.
If you believed Rasmussen four years ago you kind of figured Sarah Palin was already picking out drapes for her White House office.
WE ALL KNOW IT'S NOT OVER until the Fat Bazillionaire sings--and we know money is still power. But Mitt is in trouble, sinking if possible under the weight of his own vacuousness. Obama has sizeable leads in 18 states and the District of Columbia, which would give him 237 electoral votes (270 needed to be elected). Romney lead in more states, 23, but with only 191 votes. He is likely, however, to sweep the coveted Dakotas. Yes, yes! Three electoral votes each!
That means nine swing states are almost certain to decide the election. Romney's best chance right now seems to be to turn those nine purple states green. Pour in the money. Or, possibly, supress the vote. How does it all look as of today?
Florida (29 electoral votes): It's close; but Obama is ahead by 0.6 percentage points, admittedly a margin as thin as a few hanging chads.
North Carolina (15): Betting men would say Mr. Romney's going to take the state, although the last poll did show a bit of blue.
Virginia (13) is balanced to go either way, although Obama leads in the Commonwealth, too, especially if you discount a poll taken by Gravis Marketing, which sounds like a telemarketing operation. But call this state red if you like Mitt.
Ohio (18): The Buckeye State is blue by 2.6 points.
Wisconsin (10): Blue, but not Paul Ryan's eyes blue; Obama by 1.4 points.
Iowa (6): Call it "too close to call." Blue by 0.2 points
New Hampshire (4): Obama up 4.
Colorado (9): Polling shows the president up 3.6.
Nevada (6): More blues for Romney, maybe; blue for Obama by 3.3 points.
Here's what's even more interesting, though. Intrade Markets, which takes bets on just about any subject, including the 2012 presidential election, has Obama a heavy favorite, with a 64.9 probabliity of victory to Romney's 35.1. Nate Silver, on his site FiveThirtyEight, handicaps the election this way: Obama predicted to win 312.5 electoral votes, Romney 225.5.
IT'S STILL POSSIBLE FOR THE STORMIN' MORMON to make a comeback, of course; but there's at least one other worrisome trend if you're an angry white guy or a fan of the GOP, which are pretty much the same things. When asked if they have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of President Obama, 51.2% of likely voters say favorable, 44% the reverse, positive by 7.2 points. For Romney the numbers are uglier: 44.0 to 44.6, putting him in negative territory by 0.6 points, in recent polling. It almost makes you think he needs to look a little harder for those tax returns.
A sarcastic individual might suggest checking the car elevator.
You never know.
P. S.: If you're on the same side as Mitt and his Band of Merry Bazillionaires you can still hope Geoffrey Chaucer was right when he said: "And wel knowen ye, that by moneye and by havinge grete possessions been all the thinges of this world governed. And Salomon seith: that 'alle thinges obeyen to moneye.'"

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Falling Incomes! Mitt Romney on the Alert!!

TWO NEW STORIES TODAY FORM AN INTERESTING CONNECTION if only we take a quick moment to look.

First, the Census Bureau reports that the gap in U. S. household incomes grew in 2011, with the top 20% of households seeing increases, the the top 5% doing best, and families in the middle seeing a noticeable decline. Those stuck at the bottom, however, suffered little damage. They had little and simply stagnated. As the New York Times explained this week: "Median household income after inflation fell to $50,054, a level that was 8 percent lower than in 2007, the year before the recession took hold."

In response, Mitt Romney, took time off from talking about how President Obama wanted to take "God" off America's coins, and called again for huge tax cuts to help save the suffering top 1%.

A second story, from the BBC News, might not seem related; but careful scrutiny tells us it is. In Karachi, Pakistan, a textile factory went up in flames yesterday and before the blaze was under control 289 workers had been killed.

What's the connection? Cheap labor, the man said. No unions, by the way, he said. You can't ask an American worker to accept $50 per month to turn out denim and knitted garments and hosiery. In places like Karachi, though, you can. That means if you have a factory making underwear in North Carolina it makes perfect economic sense to close down and ship all those high-cost jobs overseas. In the business world it's simple math and, to a large degree, simple math helps explain declining incomes in this country today. Ship work to places like China and Pakistan and desperate U. S. workers, faced with high unemployment, and less and less likely in recent year to be represented by unions, will accept almost any wage to get a job or keep the one they have.

You can even play off cities against each other to get tax breaks or scare workers in high-wage states by talking about moving to low-wage states. North Carolina, for example. (Pakistan comes later, suckers.) And there you have it, Mr. Romney. A perfect business environment. Cheap labor, cheap production costs. Higher profits for those at the top.

Or, maybe it's only the "nearly perfect' environment. There are no labor unions in Pakistan, few safety regulations, and those that exist are poorly enforced. If a few safety rules are going to make it hard to speed production, don't sweat it. That's why they call them "sweat shops" in the first place. Just bribe lawmakers or inspectors and you're back in business, boys. Of course, if fire breaks out, your employees are screwed, because your foremen have locked all the factory doors, the better to control workers who might take unauthorized breaks. After all, those regular 14-hour shifts can be tough.

Now scores of your workers have been reduced to ashes--and you're looking at serious production delays--and life as a job creator can be a real bitch.

HOW DOES THIS IN ANY WAY MATTER TO AMERICANS TODAY, other than to see it as a tragedy and maybe say a prayer for the dead? It might help to go back in time and remember what it was lie when the labor movement in America was still trying to gain a hold. It might help you see that we were like Pakistan once.

A century ago, at a time when the Titanic was under construction, the fight to end child labor was still being waged. Factory owners were then strident in defense of their right to hire eight-year-olds to work twelve-hour shifts. In fact, the math of the matter was clear. Tiny children could be convinced to work for pennies per hour. Coal miners might suffer from black lung and die in cave-ins and explosions in those days and no one cared except co-workers, friends and families. Railroad workers might be crushed between cars and steel mill puddlers burned alive on a daily basis. A worker in a slaughter house who cut off three fingers would be fired for carelessness, not offered worker's compensation. It didn't matter. It was all math. In 1910, for example, thousands of textile workers in New York City had to go on strike to win even a partial victory, including a 52-hour work week. Unfortunately, the owners held fast against unions and safety issues continued to be a serious concern. Reformers knew there were problems but workers, who lacked all kinds of job protection, were afraid to complain because they knew they'd be fired.

The inevitable result was the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of March 25, 1911. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company operated out of a ten-story building in the Greenwich neighborhood of New York City, employing 900 workers, mostly young Jewish women and girls, many recent immigrants in desperate need of work. When fire broke out around 4:45 p.m. ( workers later explained that the actual time was in question because foremen often set clocks back to stretch the work day) it spread quickly. There were piles of finished goods and combustible debris in barrels blocking most exits (because cleanup was an expense and it was good arithmetic to skip the whole mess). Too late, eyewitnesses had to watch in horror as girls in flaming dresses leaped from eighth and ninth story windows. The final toll was 146.

That's where unions really come into this story. Unions came into existence as a necessary counterweight, to lead an organized fight, to protect the workers' best interests. That's what they do (no matter how mad that makes opponents on the right). And where workers are in no position to fight for their rights you can expect to see falling wages. In New York City in 1911 it was falling bodies.

In Pakistan, where unions have no hold, it's still the same way.

WE'RE NOT GOING TO END UP LIKE PAKISTAN. No need to fear that; but the more the average worker loses ways to fight back the more we need to get used to the idea of a shrinking American middle class. The right howls that union thugs want to destroy the capitalist system. That's not true it at all. Unions want to insure that the average worker, the men and women who form the foundation of every economic system known to man, get their good share. In other words, we need to remember the math and grasp what it means.

You don't enjoy the eight-hour day in 2012 because your boss loves you. You have an eight-hour day because previous generations of workers, especially organized into unions, fought to reduce the load. (It didn't kill capitalism, by the way; capitalism adjusted, which is always one of its strengths). You don't get overtime pay because businessmen and women now believe the principles of math have been changed. You get overtime because workers fought for it and because unions pressed lawmakers to pass laws to guarantee time-and-a-half pay.

The laws of math still hold absolutely true in Pakistan if you can make workers put in terribly long hours for ridiculously low pay. The laws still hold if you can ship an American job to Mexico, too. In fact, if you're old enough, you might still remember a time when U. S. trade unions had the power to enforce "union only" rules at almost all construction sites in the United States. Business types didn't like the arithmetic, though, broke the unions when they could and, what do you know, started paying much less and even hiring illegal immigrants to pound nails, install sinks and lay shingles down. Those illegals! They can't complain about pay or working conditions because they're here illegally; and boy, do they work cheap.

Really, the math of it all is easy to see. The more American workers let themselves be pushed around the lower wages sink. Unions exist to protect workers. The more unions are broken the less protection they have.

According to government statistics, the figures are clear. The average worker in the United States, represented by a union earned $934 weekly in 2011. The average unrepresented worker made substantially less, $729 (and tended to be much less likely to have health coverage, as well).
Multiply that out and the average union worker is $10,000 + better off ever year. If mom and dad both work and both are represented, you're looking at a family that can afford to send a child to college. If it's just Dad, you're seeing a man who can more easily afford to take his wife out to dinner or buy his teenage son new Nike shoes (probably made in a Southeast Asian sweat shop, by the way). You're looking at a young woman, a nurse, teacher, UPS driver, or Ford worker, who can buy a new car every fifth year.

Now you're looking at the middle class.

If you're in business to make a buck, in the end, you're looking your own best customers in the eye. In Pakistan, all they see, is the math. That's how it used to be in this country, too, but we made real progress, achieved a fairer division of the wealth. Capitalism didn't die. Instead, it thrived. It probably strikes most economists and sensible thinkers, that we're all better off it we don't go back.


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Whistleblower Gets $104 Million in I.R.S. Deal: Exposes False Patriots

"Hey, Sucker! Thanks for Still Paying Taxes!" That's probably not a campaign slogan our friends on the right want to see on bumper stickers any time soon. Still, it does kind of reflect their policy positions.

You'd think a blue collar guy like Joe the Plumber would get this. You'd think Sarah Palin might be saying, "I can see Mitt Romney's tax returns from here." But when one person cheats on his or her taxes, then the rest of us poor schmucks have to pay to make up the difference. Or run a deficit. Whatever.

The Tea Party certainly hates deficits; but they're blind, deaf and dumb when it comes to this issue.

A story today in the New York Times tells us that Bradley C. Birkenfeld, a former employee of UBS bank, is a very lucky man. Oh, sure, if you want to quibble, Birkenfeld had to do two years in the federal can as a result of his involvement in an elaborate tax-evading scheme. Now he's a free man, though, and his co-operation with the Internal Revenue Service has netted him a reward of $104 million as a whistleblower.

The case against Birkenfeld, and more importantly against UBS, a Swiss banking giant known for unbreechable secrecy, has important implications on several levels. First, we know cheating was organized and rampant. Birkenfeld's insider understanding of how the scheme worked led to a settlement between the federal government and his former employee. And, presto, just like that, UBS agreed to pay a fine of $780 billion and release the records of 4,500 American clients.

Call these bankers and clients, and the lawyers and accountants who aided them what you want. We, of the liberal persuasion might call them "crooks."

Secondly, this isn't about liberals vs. Tea Party types. It's not a left-wing plot to destroy capitalism, root and branch. This is about the Big Guy using his power, both legal and financial, to avoid paying as much as the Little Guy every April 15th.

It's not Joe the Plumber who sets up a secret Swiss bank account. Joe may be a dolt; but he doesn't have the resources to pull this off; and maybe he's patriotic enough at his core not to want to do it, even if he could. It's not your kindergarten teacher, either. She's footing her tax bill fairly every year (even though the folks at Fox News want to howl and befuddle the masses and warn ominously about her munificent pay). Ask your barber, next time you go for a trim, if he has a secret stash in a bank in Zurich. He's more likely to gape and ask where Zurich is than answer in the affirmative. Take the guy who owns the local bar, the guy who doesn't like President Obama, the guy who wears a t-shirt that reads: "You didn't build that!" followed by the words, "You can kiss my ass" and a picture of the Democratic donkey.

Ask him if he'd be mad if he knew he was paying taxes on his income from the sale of beer and pretzels while a bunch of fat cats who work on Wall Street evade taxes entirely and then jimmy their books to manipulate home mortgage and car loan interest rates. Oh, and remind him about the federal bailout that proved necessary after the Big Guys crashed the economy in 2008. Maybe, offer to buy him a liberal, "Hey Sucker!" t-shirt, instead.

You know, think about expanding his wardrobe a little.

Well, how did this case play out in the end? UBS paid the whopping fine. The IRS audited the 4,500 cheaters. News of these audits spread and 14,000 other cheaters got nervous and applied to a tax amnesty program. And in the end the cheaters, the Big Guys who could hire cheating accountants and lawyers, had to cough up a total of $5,000,000,000. Ouch, scumbags! That's some serious money, Tea Party folks. You can plug a couple of holes in the federal budget with that (sounds of right-wing angels singing). Or you can do what Mitt Romney thinks we should do. Spend a little of that cash to send a few American troops to Syria, which both he and his Neocon advisers want to do.

In the final analysis, this isn't a matter of right vs. left. At a time when poor and middle class young men and women are increasingly joining the military because they need jobs or want to qualify for G. I. Bill benefits and go to college later, this is a story about fairness. If we're asking one American to go off and get shot at in Afghanistan then surely we can ask the other American to stop hiding his wealth in a secret bank account in Switzerland.

It's not exactly the classic definition of patriotism to say, "Yes, I'm hiding my money in the Cayman Islands."

If Mitt and his boys have forgotten the last line in the Declaration of Independence, they might want to check it out. It reads: "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."

A U. S. Marine at a checkpoint in Afghanistan.
Our troops are still there; and it's still
dangerous business.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Tribute on 9-11 (And a Brief Note on Chicago's Teachers)

NO ONE OLD ENOUGH TO REMEMBER can ever forget the attacks on 9/11, the terrible loss of life, the shock and horror of an entire nation.

I was teaching a seventh grade class in American history that morning, when my principal knocked at the door. She whispered that there had been a terrorist attack in New York City. Until we knew more we were supposed to keep quiet rather than scare students. The story continued to develop, of course, and I was soon spending the rest of the day and much of the following week trying to help students make sense of cataclysmic events.

It was nice to hear this morning, via Facebook, that Lynzi Engel remembers:
I will never forget this day that happened 11 years ago. At the time I was so confused but later that day I had Mr. Viall and he explained what exactly was happening. My thoughts and prayers go out to all the families that lost loved ones this morning 11 years ago and thank you to all the police, firefighters and the service men/women who are helped that morning and are still serving. This day will never be forgotten!!!

I retired from teaching in 2008. But if I was still in the classroom here's what I'd be doing on this sad anniversary. I'd be showing a compilation of short film clips recorded in 2001, including some of the most tragic events. Today's seventh graders were only one or two years old on September 11. So, I'd show them a scene filled with people falling, falling, from the North and South Towers. What moments of terror those must have been for desperate victims. And I'd add this detail, because I'd want the kids to have a sense of what it was like for real people. I'd tell them some of those who leaped from those burning buildings were holding hands, perhaps with friends, perhaps with loved ones, where they had been trapped by smoke and flames.

It's this small gesture that that might touch the hearts of today's kids and give them a sense of what a loss our nation suffered.

Nearly 3,000 died eleven years ago. Who were they?

Steven Coakley was coming off a regular shift with Engine Company 217, in Brooklyn, just as the first plane struck. On five separate occasions, as a part of his job, he had helped deliver babies. This was different and Coakley and the rest of Engine 217 rushed to the scene. Sal Fiumefreddo, a telephone technician, had a one-day assignment to install equipment at the trade centers. Divorced, feeling lonely, he met Joan Chao at at a friend's backyard barbecue the summer before. Now, on a crisp day in September the couple was getting ready to celebrate a first wedding anniversary. Gary Bird was starting a new job with Marsh & McClennan. Normally, he would be working out of Phoenix. On this day, however, he was scheduled for a meeting at the World Trade Center, beginning at 8:15 a.m. All three were killed.

Let's remember them all. Let's remember Jill Campbell, the young mother, whose son, Jake, was learning to crawl. (She didn't live long enough to be told; but he crawled for the first time that same day.) Let's remember Timothy J. Finnerty. A bond trader at Cantor Fitzgerald, we can assume he was hard at work on the 105th floor of One World Trade Center on 9/11. Just three days earlier he had enjoyed himself at his cousin's wedding. His wife, Theresa, remembered him cutting up (which was his style) and doing the "Lawn Mower Dance," followed by the "Sprinkler Dance" at the reception.

He was one of 658 employees of his company who perished in the attack.

At a funeral later, Keith Wiswall spoke fondly of his father and how much he liked working in the lawn. One day, Keith looked out the window and saw Dad using a shop vac to suck up berries from a neighbor's tree, because they were falling on his grass. David Wiswall was 54 when he died and no one has vacuumed the lawn since.

Kristin Walsh remembers her mother, Nancy, bringing Carol Flyzik home and introducing her as "her girlfriend." It meant an adjustment, but she and her two brothers came to love their stepmother. Flyzik was one of 76 regular passengers aboard American Airlines Flight 11, headed for the West Coast on a business trip. At 8:46 a. m. she perished when the aircraft crashed into the North Tower. Amy Sweeney was an attendant on the same flight, one of eleven crew members. When hijackers took over she kept calm and contacted ground supervisors, asking them to notify the F.B.I. Her grace and bravery in a time of tragedy were no surprise to those who knew her. She died without having a chance to see her children, Anna, 6, and son, Jack, 4, grow up.

(Seth McFarlane, the creator of Family Guy, was meant to be aboard but arrived at the airport too late.)

Mayra Valdes-Rodriguez, last seen alive on the 78th floor as she hustled others down the stairs of the South Tower to safety, was known for her contagious laughter. She didn't make it out alive. We know Maria Benavente removed her shoes to speed her descent from the same building, because they were recovered later in the ruins. It wasn't enough. She didn't get out. Bill Biggart, a photo-journalist, rushed to the scene in Lower Manhattan to record events. After the South Tower fell he phoned his wife to say he was safe. "I'm with the firefighters," he explained. Nothing at all to worry about. When the North Tower came down he and the firefighters around him died in the collapse. Joe Maloney, a firefighter and Mets fan was killed. Assistant Fire Chief Gerard Barbara, a Yankees fan, was killed, too. Mike Carroll, a fifteen-year veteran with Ladder Co. 3, died along with hundreds of brave firefighters. Since his remains could not be found a friend from his softball team carried a helmet down the aisle at his funeral mass.

Lincoln Quappe, another FDNY veteran, interviewed for a story in March, told a reporter, "Every fire is scary. That's the way it is. You're a damned liar if you say you're not scared." Even a little fire could get a guy killed. "It all comes down to fate," he added. Quappe was responding on 9/11, not to a little fire, but to a huge one, unlike anything he had had ever seen. Fate caught him up and swept him away.

Steven Cafiero first "met" his girlfriend on the Internet but they were unable to speak in person until another year passed. Now, in the weeks leading up to 9/11 they were talking about marriage and planning for children. Peter Gyulavary had also been blessed by fate--years earlier, at least--having met his American wife while she was vacationing in Australia. They eventually settled down in New York City and had a daughter, Geniveve, who turned 13 around the time of the attacks. Eskedar Melaku, came to America from Ethiopia as a young woman, to attend college and build a better life. Emerita de la Pena and Judith Diaz Sierra were fast friends and co-workers, each serving as maid of honor at the other's wedding. James Martello, a former Rutgers linebacker, liked to coach his 7-year-old son's football team when he wasn't at work. Sheila Barnes was a fanatic about clipping coupons and saving money. None of them survived.

Jerrold Paskins, 57, was only in New York on 9/11 to help complete an insurance audit. (His remains were identified two months later when a lucky 1976 bicentennial silver dollar he carried turned up at Ground Zero.) Christine Egan, born in Hull, England, was visiting her brother Michael in New York. That morning he decided to take her up to the restaurant, "Windows on the World," to get a cup of coffee and a panoramic view of the city. Moments before the North Tower collapsed, Michael Egan finally managed to reach his wife by phone. "You made it," she responded with immense relief. "No, we're stuck," he admitted. They were still on the line together when she watched in horror on television as the building collapsed.

Orasri Liangthanasarn, a native of Thailand and a recent graduate of New York University, a new administrative assistant at "Windows on the World" also died. In fact, no one who was in the restaurant that day survived.

Peter Hanson, a huge fan of the Grateful Dead, his wife Sue Kim Hanson, a native of Korea with a degree in microbiology, and their daughter Christine Hanson, two-and-a-half years old, were aboard United Flight 175, originally scheduled to fly from Boston to Los Angeles. Paige Farley-Hackel was supposed to be aboard. She and her sister Ruth McCourt were taking Ruth's daughter, Juliana McCourt, 4, on a trip to Disneyland. At the last minute, Paige realized she could use frequent flier miles and switched to American Airlines Flight 11 instead. They planned to meet up in California, before both planes in a cruel twist, were taken over by Osama bin Laden's men, and sent hurtling into buildings.

Hilary Strauch, a New Jersey sixth grader, was 12 years old on the day of the attacks. She had to watch on television at school as the tower where her Dad, George Strauch, worked went down in dust and mangled metal and ruin. Frank Martini and Pablo Ortiz, both fathers, could easily have escaped. Instead, they stuck around and used a crowbar to help free at least fifty people who were trapped in the North Tower. Martini and Ortiz stayed around too long to survive. Beth Logler, 31, had run cross-country in high school. Now, she was planning a wedding for December 30, 2001. She wasn't quite fast enough to make it out in time. Sara Manley Harvey, a Georgetown graduate, had at least been married a month. The magenta-colored napkins at the reception had matched the roses carried by the flower girls. Robert A. Campbell, 25, was a painter and window washer at the World Trade Center. That morning his parents think he was working on the roof. Brian P. Williams was a high school football star back in his Covington, Kentucky days, and moved later to the Big Apple to find work. Joseph J. Hasson III survived a terrible car wreck freshman year of college. Sixteen years later his time ran out in New York.

Brad Vadas found himself trapped in the smoke and ruins on the 88th floor, just above where the plane hit the South Tower. He managed to leave a phone message on his fiancee, Kris McFerren's answering machine: "Kris, there's been an explosion. We're trapped in a room. There's smoke coming in. I don't know what's going to happen. I want you to know my life has been so much better and richer because you were in it." He promised he'd try to get out, but to be safe added, "I love you. Goodbye." Ed McNally called his wife, too, and told her he was in trouble, trapped by flames on floors below. He told her where to find his life insurance papers. Then he admitted he'd been planning a surprise trip to Rome for her fortieth birthday. "I feel silly, Liz," he added, "you'll have to cancel that."

Neither man made it home that night for dinner.

Rick Rescelora survived heavy fighting in Vietnam but not this terrorist attack. Mike Warchola had one shift left until he retired from the New York Fire Department. And he died. Port Authority police officer Dominick Pezzulo was trying to free two trapped officers from the wreckage of the South Tower when the North collapsed and he was hit and killed by falling beams. John Perry was turning in retirement papers to the New York Police Department when the first plane struck. He asked for his badge and raced to the scene, ready to help others in a time of need. Moira Smith, a blond-haired policewoman, was last seen helping injured victims out of the lobby of the South Tower a few minutes before it came crashing to earth. Ed Nichols, for one, was bleeding from head, arm and abdomen when Smith took him gently by the elbow and led him to safety. Then she turned and reentered the lobby. About that same time, eyewitness saw melting aluminum pouring out of a gash on the 80th floor where the hijacked aircraft had hit.

In a 911 call a shortly after, an unidentified woman trapped high up in the tower reported the floor under her was collapsing. Moments later, Greg Milanowycz, trapped on the 93rd floor, called his father and reported, "The ceiling is falling, the ceiling is falling." Then the Tower collapsed.

At 9:37 that same day a third plane, a Boeing 757, carrying 57 passengers and crew, crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D. C., killing all aboard and another 125 Americans on the ground. Cheryle Sincock had already been at work inside for several hours because she liked to get an early start when possible. Husband Craig, a computer scientist for the United States Army, usually came to work a little later. Now, having been struck by a third hijacked aircraft, the Pentagon was billowing black smoke, and he found himself caught on the D. C. Metro, as it shut down for security reasons. He sprinted two miles, cutting across highways and through Arlington National Cemetery. He would help with rescue attempts until 11 p. m., go home for a brief rest, and return again at 4 a. m., in hopes of locating his wife.

Cheryle didn't make it.

Todd Beamer, you may recall, was one of the passenger on United Airlines Flight 93. His widow, Lisa, would later tell reporters that Todd "really didn't do much of anything without a plan." Her husband was one of the ringleaders of a passenger revolt to try to regain control of the plane before the hijackers destroyed it. A phone operator heard him ask others, including big Jeremy Glick, a former high school wrestler and judo champion, and Mark Bingham, an old rugby player: "Are you guys ready? O. K. Let's roll." And roll they did. Although they couldn't save themselves they did bring down Flight 93, before it could do any additional damage.

THAT'S WHAT I'D BE TALKING ABOUT TODAY, if I was still in the classroom. I know it doesn't have anything to do with standardized testing; but I can't help believing this kind of story still matters. 

The body of FDNY chaplain, Father Mychal Judge, is carried away.
He was struck by a falling body and died instantly.
I'd want students to consider the tragedy of the moment.