Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sick of the Unions!

Unions have done a lot for the worker class, I'd be the first to admit. They won reasonable working hours, better working conditions, and better pay and benefits for their members. They also got processes that protected workers from capricious firing by managers. Despite the corruption that has plagued unions throughout their history, it's hard to argue that unions haven't been a major factor in the democratization of our country. Unfortunately, they now seem bent on bankrupting our country by standing in front of changes that are unavoidable - changes that primarily have to do with efficiency and accountability.

Hardly a day passes when I don't read another major story that, often unintenionally, describes a union that seems bent on driving its employer base into failure or subjecting its customers to substandard services. These stories are not in republican screeds or shouted out on Fox News; they are on the front pages of local newspapers and on media outlets like NPR. Union leaders have no shame, which apparently is a condition they've mutated into as a result of too many years in a closed shop. In my view, a monopoly of labor is just as pernicious as a monopoly of employers, and in many areas of our economy labor has just such a monopoly.

Today the New York State Troopers Union strongly objected to the state's decision not to have a new troopers class in 2010 to replace troopers who have retired. They complained about the larger geographies that troopers must cover with fewer people, and they criticized the governor for having about 200 troopers assigned to security details. What they failed to mention was that the total number of troopers was at a record level just last year, and that the state is facing a giant deficit for 2010. Could we expect these people to be part of the solution until the budget woes are controlled? No way.

The New York City school system has a "rubber room" where 700 teachers under suspension for a variety of accused misdeeds await their fate while receiving full pay. The cost is $65 million per year. Some of these teachers have been reporting to the "rubber room" for more than seven years while their cases proceed through the labrinthine process that the union somehow negotiated. Change this unwieldly process? No way. The process for dismissing an ineffective teacher also contains so many steps, documentation requirements, and appeals to higher and higher authorities that few principals have the time or interest to use it. It's obvious that teachers unions have little interest in the quality of education that their members deliver, even though bad teachers are often pariahs even in the teacher ranks of their own schools. This is what happens when unions gain so much political power that only candidates who support even their outrageous demands will get their funding support.

Today I listened to a co-worker describe a post office screw-up of a deposit for business reply mail. This was the third consecutive time that this type of transaction had been improperly processed by this local post office. If a private company had screwed up in this manner, it would have been easy to find a manager, explain the situation, and get the problem fixed. When it comes to the post office, you just shrug your shoulders and sigh, wishing that they'd go bankrupt and be sold off to FedEx or UPS after their union contracts were scrapped.

In Rochester, New York, the school system is run by a local school board of hacks who each get a few thousand dollars for their part time efforts. The drop out rate is ridiculous, and Rochester's teenage pregnancy rate leads the nation, so the mayor is making noise about getting permission to take over the system. In addition to citing the poor academic performance, he's concerned about the waste in the central administration of the system. Where is the teacher's union on this? Screaming! They see a disaster coming when an excellent mayor might get into their knickers after replacing a bunch of hacks who are easily bought off. Why should we be surprised?

Last year it cost the federal government over $60 billion to save GM and Chrysler, both of which were crippled by unions who fought the company's effort to become competitive. Well, we haven't seen anything yet. The public employee unions will be the death of the blue states before its over. Maybe unions were once good citizens, but now they are simply out to protect obsolete jobs and poor performers. I'm sick of them, and I'm going to vote for anyone who has the guts to take them on.

Napolitano Should Be Fired

Anybody who's been a manager knows that things go wrong. Policies and procedures can be deficient, or people charged with implementing them can make mistakes. Obviously, in the wake of learning all the information about the latest attempted airline bombing, something went terribly wrong and the process must be fixed. I don't blame Janet Napolitano, head of Homeland Security, for the problem, since she is not personally responsible for every failure within her organization, but I do believe she should be fired for her failure to respond appropriately to the bad news. In short, the system did not work, contrary to her representations on TV this weekend. We cannot accept leaders whose first reaction to bad news is to "purfume the pig".

Napolitano, even in the absence of complete information, should have simply reported that the system did not work and consequently, the lives of hundreds of Americans were jeopardized. She should have announced her plans for a complete and prompt review of the security breach, and her intent to correct the problems that caused the failure. That's what effective leaders do, and she did not do it. The correct response was left to the president, some three days after the incident occurred.

Napolitano's response shows that she does not have the right stuff. Obama should ask her to leave, and he should appoint a replacement who sets a no-compromise, no-excuse tone when it comes to airline security and security in general.

I recognize there will never be a foolproof system in place to safeguard the American people from every terrorist attack. There are too many vulnerabilities, and the resources to deal with them are not unlimited. We are left with "doing the best job that we can", and accepting that a future tragedy will probably occur. That said, there is no way that an identified potential terrorist should have been allowed to board a plane bound for the U.S. or keep his tourist visa. The system was broken, for sure, but Napolitano just didn't have the guts to tell it like it was. It's time for you to go, Janet.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Christmas Coincidence

Yesterday morning I needed to stop at the local credit union before driving to downtown Rochester to do some church bookkeeping work.

As I waited at a red light near the credit union, I looked to my left and saw a man slowly walking down the snowy roadside toward me, using a cane. He wore an overcoat, carried a briefcase, and hobbled uncertainly because one of his legs was covered with a large brace. I wondered where he was going at such a slow pace, but then the light changed and I went on my way.

After finishing my banking, I departed by another way and soon approached another nearby intersection. There, waiting for the light to change, was the same man. I pulled over, stopped my car, and shouted, "Do you need a ride?" He replied, "Where are you going?" I said, "Anywhere you want to go! Hop in!" He smiled, hobbled over to the passenger door, and strugged into the passenger seat with his stiff leg. I noticed that he appeared to be of Hispanic origin and that he was well dressed.

"I was going up to Monroe Avenue", he said as I started out again. "Where, exactly, are you headed?", I asked. He said he needed to catch a bus to downtown where he worked. I knew Monroe Avenue was almost one mile away. Quite a walk for a man with a cane on a windy, snowy morning! We chatted some more; he said his office was in the Times Union Building, which was directly on my route to the church. He was happy when I said I'd be delivering him to his office door.

We conversed during the twenty minute drive. He told me he was an attorney in general practice, mostly working with low income people who had legal problems. He said he often took payment in barter services, or took clients who could not pay him. He didn't have a car, which didn't matter since he couldn't drive because of his stiff leg. He laughed when he said he had recently re-injured a chronically bad knee when he made a poor decision to dance at a party. I marveled at his pleasant demeanor, his obvious high intellect, and his courage in attempting the challenging walk to the bus stop. He gave me his card as we approached Times Union Building, and he said, "Please let me know if I can ever do anything for you." I waved goodbye.

Why did I stop for him? Well, as I've walked the Appalachian Trail for many years, I've had to ask many favors of strangers. I've thumbed a lot of rides in and out of small towns, I've had a lady wash my hiking clothes, for free, after she explained there was no laundromat in her town, and I've also been able to help a few strangers that had needs no one else was going to address. I've become accustomed to dealing with obvious needs, whether or not I knew the person in need. I always seem to benefit from these experiences in some unexpected way.

As I look back on yesterday morning, it seems like quite a coincidence that I had a chance to observe this man and evaluate his plight some minutes before I was presented with the choice to either stop for him or go on my way. Was this just a regular coincidence, or was it a Christmas coincidence? I'm still pondering why his destination was exactly where I was planning to go, even though I intended to transport him wherever he needed to go. What do you think?

Monday, December 21, 2009

"The ONE", Examined

I'd be the first to agree that a lot of air has gone out of Obama's balloon. Doing the job is a lot harder than running for it, actually, and idealism must be subordinate to pragmatism when things have got to be done. The Left is raging; their savior has turned out to be mortal after all.

But I like Obama's family image (please, Barack, don't be a Tiger!), his clear statements of American values, and his stamina and ability to deal with lots of big issues at the same time. Sometimes, though, I wish he'd just come on a bit stronger when the bad guys, domestic and foreign, act up. But he's a diplomat, and maybe that's best in the long run.

What really bugs me, though, is all the trash talk from the Right regarding Obama. They've set him up as "the ONE", a Matrix-like persona whose goals are the destruction of America as we know it. You would not believe all the bad things Obama has planned for us!!! Somehow, though, there isn't any evidence that he's pushing any of this stuff. It's the classic case of setting up a false target, then shooting it full of holes - but the fools on the Right love it. It's just what they want to hear, and who cares if it's true or not. Closet racism at its finest!

This would be a joke to me, just another reason to poke fun at the nutcakes who proliferate the red states and infect the blue ones...except that some of my friends actually push this crap. They're neither stupid nor heartless, but they've got it in for Barack. Therefore, I've concluded that everyday exposure to Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity does, in fact, constitute brainwashing. There really is a right wing conspiracy, and it's right in front of our eyes.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Huge Cost of "Prevention"

Rochester, NY, just decided to install 60 red-light cameras to curb the endemic running of red lights in the city. Violators will get a $50 ticket through the mail, and the city will get what's left over after paying almost $4,000 per month to the company that owns and operates the cameras. If the city breaks even, $2,800,000 will be transferred from the pockets of violators to the pockets of the camera vendor. This program is a great example of the many "prevention" programs that drain our economy and go far to make us uncompetitive in the world.

As an ambulance worker, I know firsthand the danger presented by red-light runners. Just before Christmas several years ago, I helped clean up a three car collision caused by a younger man who ran a red light. The injuries were severe, and the Christmas plans of several families turned from celebration to mourning. I still grit my teeth when I think of that young man, and I shudder every time I see an unthinking person run a red light. Perhaps the cameras will prevent some horrible events from occurring.

The problem is that $2,800,000 now will be spent to control reckless stupidity rather than being spent on more beneficial consumption, or perhaps even saved. Certainly the violators would have better options for spending their $50, wouldn't they? And, doesn't the U.S. have more important industries than the one that makes red-light cameras? All those $50 fines, for example, could have been spent on energy-efficient light bulbs or college textbooks.

Formal economics training educates us about the trade-off's we make. "Guns or butter" is the classic example for comparing the choices we must make. Every penny that goes into preventing adverse voluntary behavior represents a penny that could be spent on something more useful to society. So, we understand that every dollar spent on a hugely expensive warplane that never fires a shot in anger could have been spent elsewhere. Similarly, the cost of police posted in schools and any number of other "preventive" measures aimed at curbing voluntary behavior such as school violence precludes spending on other, more useful, programs. In total, the cost of "prevention" represents a huge anchor on our economy, an anchor that countries who have less law-breaking do not need. So, we are less competitive than they.

I believe that we need fewer laws but uncompromising enforcement. In addition to "slap on the wrist" $50 fines for running a red light, we should increase the fine to $500 for the second violation and confiscate the car after three violations. I'd apply the same logic for all other conduct that we truly wish to control, and scrap the laws that we don't wish to enforce with truly punitive measures.

The fact is that the great majority of citizens obey the law, but they bear a huge cost to prevent unlawful behavior by a small minority. This "hidden tax" funds the bloated government bureaucracies that sap our economy by using our money for only symbolic "prevention". If our citizenry really understood this giant problem, maybe we'd change direction and free up an enormous amount of dollars for better uses.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Strong Feelings!

Obama's acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize was one of the best speeches I've ever heard, not so much for the delivery as the content. Obama described the world as it is and the world most of us would like it to be. Unfortunately, war must be the last resort when evil (is there a better word?) refuses to back down, and the world must deal with incipient evil before it gains enough strength to do massive harm. At the same time, it's critical to maintain idealism and strive to accomplish tasks that elevate humanity or safeguard the world. In addition to speaking in philosophical generalities, the president touched on many real problems and described practical ways for addressing them.

Obama's speech was applauded by many on both sides of America's political divide, but this moment of near-unanimity was only momentary. The unbridled competition and angst that characterizes our political discourse continues unabated, thereby itself becoming the subject of debate rather than the underlying problems that politicians are supposed to be addressing.

Strong feelings are a necessary component in the process of making progress. That "fire in the gut" provides the determination to overcome the inertia of the status quo. But, too often in today's America, the strong feelings are aimed at personalites rather than issues. For example, yesterday I was disappointed in the reaction several of my friends had to Obama's speech. They were unable to discuss its content because they were totally focused on their dislike for the man. We need to get past this simple pettiness which I believe our media has caused to flourish.

Is it possible to begin channelling our political objectives in a more positive way? Yes. "Leadership" is the answer. Only if top political figures on both sides of the aisle begin challenging the hyperbole and character assassination practiced by their own side will temperatures begin to cool down and an environment for resolving differences emerge. Sadly, I'm not optimistic about the chances for this change of attitude. Perhaps the stresses created by America's many intractable problems are at the root of the unending animosity. If so, God help us! But God will not do this; it's still up to us.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Reid was Right

I've seen the clip of majority leader Reid comparing the republican senators' blocking of health care reform with those, years ago, who delayed freeing the slaves and allowing womens' suffrage. I've also seen the outrage of those he called out. Reid was right. Health care is no longer a luxury only for those who can afford it; it's a human right.

If you read my blog you know that I don't believe in unlimited rights. Those who abuse the system need to be restrained, and there are many who try to abuse it. I believe that those who fail to put in a day's work don't deserve a job, for example. I believe that those who abuse their bodies shouldn't get expensive care to fix what they have done to themselves. Being responsible is important.

On the other hand, being born into a family with limited means should not prevent any child from getting whatever preventive or corrective care that will improve their chances of being a productive citizen. Being a working class person without company-paid insurance should not prevent an adult from seeing a doctor before their health problems become severe.

We need health care reform. If I had my way, we would go well beyond the legislation now being proposed. For example, I would divert many of the dollars now going to treat older, chronically ill people toward preventive education and care for all citizens regardless of ability to pay.

Reid was right. The republicans have no plan. Their customers are members of the "big money" culture who are prospering under the current system, or they are citizens who have theirs and could care less for those who don't - just like the slave owners. Way to go, Reid!

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Bring on the Bold!

We Americans are naive. We think that we should be able to solve all our problems with guaranteed solutions that don't upset our routine too much. We have a low threshold of success.

Yes, most of us get through each day, and most companies and institutions stay in business from year to year. Perhaps many of us count this "muddling along" as success. I don't. Success is accomplishing the big things, the difficult things, the things that are important to achieve but have uncertainties big enough to sink the ship. Few of us, and few organizations, have the stuffing even to attempt these things. We've grown cautious and complacent.

America now has many problems that I would consider "big things". Education, infrastructure, health care, international competition, global warming, and inner city deterioration all call out for solutions that go beyond band-aids. "Muddling along" is always the solution proposed by entrenched bureaucracies and special interests, but it will not result in success. Success will require upsetting the applecart, taking big risks, and changing the rules. Who will lead the charge? Certainly not those to whom we've been entrusting our future.

It's time to support those who bring forth the bold solutions, those who have vision, intelligence, dedication and the willingness to take some risk to achieve great results. Success is not beyond our capability, but it seems to be beyond our comfort zone. That needs to change. We've got citizens who carry genes that crossed oceans and opened a frontier, that got us to the moon. Let's find them and give them more than a little rope. The taste of success would be sweet!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

What if We Don't?

Obama made his speech last night, pledging to beat down the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This morning, critics on the right and left are pounding on him. The right is upset about the withdrawal plan, the left about his not deciding to get out. Who knows who is right?

I've been listening to so many "experts" during the past few months that I may know more about that part of the world than I know about my own town. Unfortunately, I still don't know the right answer. That part of the world has frustrated many great military powers, starting with Alexander the Great and, more recently, the Soviet Union. Will we be the next to fail?

As a former executive, I'm keenly aware that every decision must be based on assessing the benefits and the risks. There are few "sure things", and there are always unintended consequences. Decision makers do their best to come out on the smart side of the big questions. They have a really tough job, a job that most non-leaders fail to appreciate. To think that conscientious leaders don't do their homework or take decisions lightly is crazy; I recall taking many runs around my neighborhood at 3 a.m. as I, unable to sleep, went out to sort my thoughts on major issues as I jogged off the tension. Obama, no doubt, has been agonizing over his choices on Afghanistan.

I've been against escalation because I have little faith in the Afghan people. There has never been an Afghan "nation"; Afghanistan is a collection of local ethnic groups with little allegiance to a central government. Overcoming this obstacle, which is exacerbated by pervasive corruption in the government and illiteracy in the populace, will be extremely difficult. Obama's troops and diplomats will need some magic if they are to create a country out of this mess. The risk is that we waste a huge amount of money and many lives in a failed enterprise.

The stated benefit of escalation is that the Taliban will be prevented from establishing a solid base of operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If their objectives were simply to hold that territory, we should certainly get out of the fight - it would be a civil war. However, there is substantial evidence that Al Queda has objectives far beyond holding ground; they wish to establish fundamentalist Muslim societies after overthrowing governments in the Middle East and other places, and they wish to bend other countries' policies to accomodate them. They are not kidding about being our implacable enemies; hosts of suicide bombers put an exclamation point on their dedication to this cause. Can we give them a secure base by leaving Afghanistan?

Obama has made his decision. He's got more information and more advice on this topic than anyone else in the world, and his decision is not one primarily based on politics. His critics, on both the right and left, are far more subject to criticism for being politically influenced, so I discount them. Obama must be practical, above all, and he knows he'll be personally secure whether or not he succeeds in this war. At the end of the day, he decided that the risk of allowing Al Queda and similar groups a safe haven was too great to walk away from. I can live with that, and I wish him and our military the very best.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Bad News and Good News on China

The TV program last night showed dramatic footage of much land in northern China turning into desert due to overgrazing and over-watering, and the water table is falling fast in some places due to exuberant irrigation. Farmers who thought they had a good thing going are now crying the blues as their fields blow away in giant dust storms. It's sad, and bad for China.

Now the good news. We owe them lots of money, and it looks like they'll be needing to import a lot of food in the coming years. We've got lots of agricultural capacity, and we'll have a lot more when we get out of the silly corn ethanol business. Selling our crops to them might be a winner.

But it still hurts me to see their country disappearing in great brown clouds...