Tom McLaughlin

A former history teacher, Tom is a columnist who lives in Lovell, Maine. His column is published in Maine and New Hampshire newspapers and on numerous web sites. Email: tommclaughlin@fairpoint.net

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

When Government Unions Win, Everybody Else Loses


Not too much good news about public education coming out of our nation’s capital. Michelle Rhee resigned as chancellor of the Washington, DC school system. She was doing everything she could to break the left-wing teachers’ union’s power to protect its deadwood teachers and principals. She modified the teacher evaluation process by taking student progress on tests into consideration and she fired over 200 ineffective teachers and administrators. She had the support of Mayor Adrian Fenty, but other public employee unions including the infamously left-wing SEIU joined up to defeat him and pull the rug out from under Rhee. The American Federation of Teachers spent over $1 million in the effort.

Unions won. Students lost.

This came on the heels of another bit of bad news last year in our capitol city when Congress (which administers the District of Columbia) eliminated a school choice program for 1700 DC school children. President Obama, who sends his children to an expensive private school in DC, did nothing to support the school choice program for poor DC kids. Democrats are beholden to the teachers’s unions, which are the biggest supporters of that party nationwide, just ahead of trial lawyers. School choice anywhere it’s offered is anathema to teachers’ unions. Most of their political capital is spent defeating school choice (voucher) programs nationwide.

Here too, unions won. Students lost.

Shortly after Michelle Rhee resigned, the DC school system started feeding dinner to students as well as breakfast and lunch. According to an article at change.org, “This new early dinner program will feed 10,000 kids who may spend up to 10 hours a day at school in early-care and after-school programs.” So, now US taxpayers are feeding three meals a day to school kids in our nation’s capital. They’re spending ten hours a day in school with early care and after school programs, yet change.org is lamenting that food stamp aid may be cut to pay for it. “Forty percent of households reported not having enough money to buy food at least one time,” the article claims, and the federal government is “robbing Peter to pay Paul” when it cuts food stamps.

Why don’t those households have enough money for food when their kids are getting two or three free meals at school in addition to their food stamps? Are they bartering their food stamp benefits for other things on the street corner? According to an article in the Washington Examiner, the Washington DC school system has the fattest kids in the country. “The District has the highest childhood obesity rate in the country [according to] the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” yet we’re supposed to feed them still more? What the heck is going on down there?

Most newspapers report the per-pupil cost for DC schools at $13,000 per year, but if an article in the Washington Times is correct, the real number is $24,600! That’s the figure you get when you take all the money spent on the schools and divided it by the number of students. My only question at this point is: when are we going to provide beds for them? We babysit them before and after school, we feed them, we teach them to brush their teeth, teach them about the birds and the bees, provide counseling - so what’s left for parents to do? Where is it going to end?

The school choice program that Democrats in Congress cut cost the Washington DC school district only $7500 per pupil. At $24,600 per pupil the District spends, that would be a net savings of more than $17,000 per student. The 1700 students who took advantage of it were thriving. Their parents were happy with it too, but the teachers’ unions were not because it shined a bright light on what a bloated, corrupt education bureaucracy the unions created and preserved. If it expanded and was copied across the country, the teachers’ union monopoly would be smashed and Democrats would lose their biggest constituency. It had to go.

The federal government administers Washington, DC. Its schools are among the most expensive in the country, yet its students score among the lowest on standardized tests. If there’s a congressman or senator who sends his/her kids to the public schools in that city, I don’t know who it is. Nevertheless, that same federal government is taking more and more control of all the nation’s schools through an expanding US Department of Education.

As a long-time public school teacher, I don’t see that as an encouraging trend. How about we get rid of some Democrats next Tuesday?

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Hot Showers and Indoor Toilets


Indoor toilets and hot showers are great. Both are only short steps from my bed and I start every day with them. Central heat is nice too. I hope to have all three for the rest of my days - about twenty more years for an almost-sixty-year-old, heterosexual white guy according to the actuaries - but I’m not fully confident that I will. For that, I’ll need steady and affordable supplies of electricity and fossil fuel for the next two decades and those require a stable infrastructure, both physical and financial. In spite of what the lefty Cassandras proclaim about us running out of fossil fuels, we’re not, and we won’t for centuries to come. It’s the cracks in our financial infrastructure that worry me. Maybe it’s the widespread strikes in France over raising the retirement age from 60 to 62. French unions are shutting down refineries and pipelines. Maybe it’s the riots in Greece over similar benefit and retirement issues. Both portend unrest here in America, which is on the same path many European countries have been traveling. Frenchmen and Greeks and many other Europeans are like petulant children who expect their parent government to take care of them while they put their feet up and relax. They want to retire young, then collect full pensions and benefits for two or three decades. They don’t seem to care or even understand how unrealistic those expectations are. They don’t have enough young people to work and pay the taxes necessary to keep it all going - and it’s their own fault.

When so many French, Italians, Spaniards, Germans, and Greeks choose not to bear enough children even to replace themselves, who did they think was going to keep working to support them in their declining years? Yeah, I know children are expensive, take a lot of energy and sacrifice and are a pain to raise sometimes, but what’s the alternative? Did they think immigrants were going to fill in for the children they never had? Immigrants, legal and illegal, have swarmed into Europe from Muslim countries to the south, but they’re not assimilating. They don’t want to become Frenchmen, Spaniards, Norwegians, Swedes, or Italians, and they are proving to be a net drain on government services instead of contributing to the pensions and benefits of aging Europeans. Rather than showing affection for their new homelands, the new immigrants seem disdainful. Immigrant neighborhoods are breeding grounds for terrorists. All this has lead German Chancellor Angela Merkel to declare that multiculturalism - the liberal dream that people from every culture would come to Europe and be smiling, happy people holding hands - “has utterly failed.” She might as well have said that European socialism has utterly failed as well because it has. It’s responsible for a generation of selfish, pampered, spoiled citizens who want what they want no matter what it costs. They don’t care if everything comes crashing down after them, as long as they get theirs while they’re still living.

After 33+ years as a public-school teacher in Maine, there’s a pension coming to me for the rest of my days - theoretically. I have no debts. My expenses are low. My wife and I know how to live frugally, having spent most of our lives together working multiple jobs, paying the bills and raising a family. With a pension, we could cut back our workload a bit and live fairly comfortably but one thing nags at me: Can I depend on that that pension being there in five years? Ten years? Maybe. Maybe not. State pension funds are in trouble all over the country, underfunded by over $3 trillion. As Andrew Biggs writes in the Wall Street Journal: “According to accounting rules adopted by the states, a public sector pension plan may call itself "fully funded" even if there is a better-than-even chance it will be unable to meet its obligations.” Many don’t even reach that threshold. Just as in Europe, government employee unions and left-wing politicians here signed extremely generous agreements over the years that both sides must have known were little better than Ponzi schemes. They worked well for the first waves of retirees, but - as with Social Security - bankruptcy looms for baby boomers like me who are beginning to retire now. The forty million babies aborted in America over the last four decades would have come in handy about now, but oh well. It’s likely they’d have been much more productive than the 12-20 million illegal immigrants from Latin countries to our south who have been allowed in to replace them. Like Muslim immigrants in European countries, they’re a net drain on our system, but at least they’re not plotting to bring down western civilization as Muslim immigrants are in Europe. That’s a consolation. Socialist Democrats running the White House and Congress have added over $3 trillion to our national debt in less than two years. The Federal Reserve is printing $100 billion a month, yet unemployment is still rising. Nonetheless, my toilet worked this morning. Hot water was there in the shower. The heat came on. I still have a job to go to and the election is less than two weeks away.

One day at a time.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Commander-In-Defeat?


American soldiers fight and die in Afghanistan because they believe they’re defending our country and our way of life. It’s disturbing to read in Bob Woodward’s recently-published book “Obama’s War” that their commander-in-chief doesn’t see it the way they do. Woodward’s account leaves the impression that President Obama only wants to appear that he shares our soldiers’ beliefs, but that he really sees the war as a political problem to rid himself of before reelection time.

As a US senator and presidential candidate, Obama said over and over that President Bush’s Iraq War was a distraction and that the important was was in Afghanistan. Enough Americans believed him to put him in charge as president. His generals believed him too, so when the newly-elected Obama asked them at strategy meetings what his options were, they laid out various plans to win. Obama got exasperated because he didn’t really want to win. He wanted to get out.

As Woodward puts it:

President Obama was on edge. For two exhausting months, [Obama] had been asking military advisers to give him a range of options for the war in Afghanistan. Instead, he felt that they were steering him toward one outcome and thwarting his search for an exit plan. He would later tell his White House aides that military leaders were "really cooking this thing in the direction they wanted."

If Obama’s generals were wrong about anything, it was believing what their commander-in-chief said. It’s clear after almost two years in office that although he was great at campaigning, he has little idea about how to govern. It would be one thing if he believed a ground war in Afghanistan wasn’t the way to defeat our enemies and was looking for a different strategy. There’s enough historical precedent given England’s and the former Soviet Union’s experience in Afghanistan to support a re-thinking. If he asked for ideas about a covert, unconventional, low-intensity conflict together with a world-wide anti-jihad propaganda campaign that might be more effective at defeating our enemies, people might understand. But he’s not doing that. He just wants out.

Obama refuses even to define our enemy as Radical Islam. What does he think might be a common factor with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Hezbollah? Why is he eliminating references to “Islamic Radicalism” and “jihad” from key national security documents? What’s going on? Does President Obama think he can bring his teleprompter over there and charm them out of their intentions to bring down western civilization?

Key military advisors Woodward mentions in “Obama’s Wars” are resigning, including Obama’s National Security Advisor James Jones, a retired Marine General who is quoted in an interview with Der Spiegel on Obama’s approach to the war: “Hope is not a strategy.”

That we have men and women willing to die in combat assures the survival of our way of life. They’re not suicidal as our enemies are, but they’re willing to risk their lives to defend our country against those enemies. Their ideals are among the greatest any of us possess and they deserve our highest respect. Because, after all, it’s all about ideals. It’s about their belief that America is exceptional. It’s the best country in the world and the last best hope on earth, as Abraham Lincoln described the United States of America. It’s about believing that our country is greater than we are, that what it represents is worth dying for. The men who volunteer for combat are proud of their country, and that’s why they do what they do. It’s becoming painfully apparent, however, that their commander-in-chief who orders them into battle doesn’t share their ideals. That’s bad. That’s very bad for all of us.

I wonder how our combat soldiers felt when, only after her husband won presidential primaries, they heard Michelle Obama declare: “And let me tell you something -- for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country.” The first time? Was that a clue that the man who went on to become their commander-in-chief might have similar feelings? It would seem so given that he sat in the pew of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s church listening to his anti-American rants for twenty years and launched his political career in the living room of left-wing terrorist Bill Ayers who attempted to violently overthrow the US government.

It’s consoling for families who lose loved ones in combat to believe they died defending their country. How will those fathers, mothers, sisters, wives, and children feel when they read evidence in Woodward’s book that their president is only using our soldiers for his personal political purposes?

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Wednesday, October 06, 2010

To Bail Or Not To Bail


People can choose whether or not to use their money to bail out a relative or friend, and that’s good. People don’t have a choice when government uses their money to bail out businesses, and that’s bad.

Bail is a great system as traditionally practiced. When someone’s arrested, he can either stay in jail until his trial when his guilt or innocent will be determined, or he can be bailed out. He’s allowed one phone call to send word out into the community at large that he’s in jail charged with whatever. If he has a good enough reputation, a family member or a friend will show up at the jail and put down however much money to secure his release until trial, and the amount would depend on the seriousness of the charge(s).

On the other hand, if he’s worn out his welcome with family and friends in the community, if his reputation is so tarnished that there’s nobody left who is willing to come forward and help, then he stays in jail. We could call this process the “trial before the trial.” If those who know him best make the judgement, if in their opinion he’s become dysfunctional - by abusing alcohol or drugs, through dishonesty, laziness, violence, or whatever - each relative or friend makes an individual decision about whether they wish to extend themselves for him - or leave him in jail to take the legal consequences of his behavior. It’s a wonderful process. If no one answers his call, the accused stays inside to ponder how things got so bad. A judge might force him to undergo treatment for addiction or mental illness. The accused may resolve to change the way he runs his life and become a better person after dealing with the consequences of his behavior. Or maybe not, and he’ll stay in jail a very long time. Either outcome is usually good for the community at large.

The traditional bail system is a wonderful process. Lately, however, the term has been applied as a remedy for bankruptcy. There’s a whole set of bankruptcy laws for individuals who have managed their affairs badly and cannot pay their debts. I’m no expert, but when they declare bankruptcy, whatever assets they have beyond basic necessities are liquidated to pay off creditors and the rest of their debts are forgiven. Some of their creditors don’t get paid, and that’s a consequence either of bad luck, or for their bad judgement in choosing to do business with an unreliable person. There’s still some choice involved, but it’s before the fact, not after. Once bankruptcy is declared, a judge makes the decisions.

It’s much the same process with a corporation. If it makes bad decisions, if it’s irresponsible, greedy, lazy, mismanaged, or dysfunctional in some other way and cannot pay its debts, it declares bankruptcy and then it has no more choices. All contracts become null and void and a judge decides what should be done from then on. It could be forced to reorganize in some way. If it’s a large corporation, competitors often choose to buy up parts of it and continue to operate them. Some creditors get paid, others lump it, but the overall outcome is usually good for the community at large. Bankruptcy laws apply, but the free market is the ultimate arbiter. Government has, until lately, avoided involvement beyond maintaining courts to function as they were designed. When government goes beyond that and bails out big companies as it has lately, ostensibly to protect the overall economy, it makes things worse. Some companies need to fail, just as some individuals need to sit in jail. Families don’t help by continuing to bail out dysfunctional relatives, and neither does government help by bailing out dysfunctional companies. It only prolongs the agony and the inevitable collapse, which will likely be even more catastrophic than it might otherwise have been if it were allowed to occur early. Failure is a great teacher and there are many who seem not to learn any other way.

Taxpayers don’t have a choice when government bails out businesses, even though it’s their money being spent, or it’s borrowed money being spent that taxpayers, their children and their grandchildren, will be forced to repay with interest. The Democrat Congress and President Bush began the process with TARP in 2008 (Troubled Assets Relief Program), but an even more heavily Democrat Congress and President Obama after November, 2008 elections, have taken the practice much, much farther. Together, they have mortgaged the whole country with crippling debt to bail out their friends on Wall Street and in unions like the UAW (United Auto Workers). If General Motors and Chrysler had been allowed to collapse, union contracts would have been nullified. Their unwieldy pension and benefit packages were major factors pushing the auto companies over the brink. However, since unions are a major constituency of the Democrat Party, government preserved those unsustainable contracts with huge bailouts when the whole mess should have been allowed to collapse.

Americans are fuming and the Tea Party is in revolt. Government took away their choice to bail or not to bail, so they’ll choose instead to replace their dysfunctional government at the polls next month.

It’s going to be a very interesting election.

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Sunday, October 03, 2010

Autumn Twilight

A film director I know calls this the "golden hour." In fall, it's the last 20-30 minutes of bright sun before it sets. Always want a camera in hand. These are my favorite ash trees in the back yard. The sky is bluest on a crisp autumn afternoon too.These had just come down in the previous night's wind and rain. They were lit from the side by the declining sun.This is my favorite shade of red in geraniums. It's rich. My wife saves these each fall - brings them inside for the winter and puts them back out.Twilight makes the leaves look good too.Crimson catches my eye. Saw these sumacs on the way to work one morning last week near the Saco River. I'm alway a sucker for nature's reds.These are nicer.These needles fell on an old railroad tie I'd hauled in so my wife could use it as a step. This tie had been imprinted by the gravel base after so many heavy trains had passed over it. The twilight makes it more interesting.Another morning last week showed muted light. The sun hadn't quite risen and it had rained heavily in the night. Gotta move that woodpile before winter.Love those reds. Hope the wife saves these geraniums again for next year.

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