Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Private v Public Unions

I believe our best teachers are underpaid, yes, underpaid, and that our very high per pupil costs come from other than teacher salaries. This must be remembered when we try to address a very serious problem facing cities and towns.

It is no secret that our cities and towns are struggling to pay for services and also stay within the tax levy increase limits. As revenues from the state are lower than last year, towns need to replace that lost revenue. One easy answer is to increase property taxes on a population that is already paying among the highest in the country. This will not sit well.

Another choice is to look for cost savings, and unions, especially teachers' unions, will surely be asked to re-negotiate contracts. This of course, will be met with resistance. But I hope everyone will keep the following in mind in these tough times.

When private sector unions make concessions, their sacrifices will go to companies whose executives often make millions in salaries and to shareholders whose dividends can benefit from those concessions.

When a public sector union makes concessions the beneficiaries are not high priced executives but the people, the homeowners, the citizens of Rhode Island. That is an important difference.

I know this will not make me very popular in some circles but I believe it needs to be said. It's not us against them. We have to work together and we'll get through this.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Let Teachers Teach

In the Commentary in the Dec. 14, Sunday Journal, "Great Public schools belong in R.I." by Daniel McKee, mayor of Cumberland, he makes some excellent points, first and foremost, that public education is arguably the most important issue we face both locally and nationally.

I think most people will agree that our students are our most valuable and precious treasure and that quality education is our most important goal.

The article suggests that the answer is to bring in new education models such as Mayoral Academies, which claim to consistently outperform Rhode Island's public schools by wide margins.

We should do whatever we can to improve student performance. But is bypassing the existing public school system the best, most cost efficient way? Would it not be better to utilize the existing teacher and educator expertise and let them work with others to develop and implement the changes needed to reach the goal of academic excellence?

However, I do see one enormous obstacle - the Teachers' Contract.

In North Kingstown's contract there are 26 Titles and 2 Appendices. All of them deal in some fashion with the obligations of the schools to the teachers. Not one paragraph specifies the obligation of the teachers to student performance.

There are no requirements for example, that student performance be improved in any measurable way. There are however four pages specifying limiting class size and teaching hours. There are eleven pages regarding sick leave and absences but not one defining teacher responsibilities and performance.

The entire contract is weighted heavily in favor of teachers' wishes ignoring the school department, students or taxpayers. At first blush it is easy to blame the unions for this lopsided document but in truth the unions are doing their job. Their first obligation is to the teachers, despite their frequent battle cry, "It's for the kids". That is simply a ruse; it's for the teachers and that's what they have been hired to do.

It's the School Committee that has failed in its obligation to provide the best education for our children and has simply bowed to union demands whenever "for the kids" conflicts with "for the teachers". For example, if the School Committee were to close a school due to drop in enrollment saving the cost of fifteen teachers, they could only eliminate ten because the contract sets the number to ten. We'd have to pay for five unnecessary teachers. "For the Kids"? Hardly. I'll bet if teachers were able to work with planners without union influence they could come up with an outline that would be far better for both the taxpayers and the children.

The Town Council should establish an Education Panel to outline needs and goals and, together with the School Committee, set forth an agenda which would include, at minimum, major consolidations, reduction of and restructuring of the bureaucracy, pay increases for the better teachers and the introduction of merit pay.

Before adding another educational system give the current system one year to satisfy that goal. If it fails then we can move on.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Elephant in the Room

I recall some months ago when the automakers requested money, some congressmen wondered out loud whether it was a good idea to send money to help the very people that were responsible for the auto manufacturers' problems.

Watching the hearings over the past few days no one has had the guts to make this a condition for the 'bailout'. They were outraged then but now they seem afraid to require that the CEO's hand over control to someone else who will change the direction of the industry as a condition for receiving $Billions of our money.

Just an observation.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Where's the Suggestion Box?

On Sunday, November 23, in the Providence Journal, John Kostrzewa wrote a sobering assessment of the financial challenges facing Rhode Island. My friends, it's more than serious. Mr. Kostrzewa ends with: "Taxpayers can leave it to the elected officials, or they can push for more grass roots influence on how much taxes are collected and how they are spent."

Good advice but just how does the average reader do this? You, yes you who are reading this now, must make a phone call, write a letter, or send an email to lawmakers and the Governor. The 'suggestion box' is the contact information at the State's website's Member Contacts which will let you find whom you're looking for. Use it. And letters to the editor are useful as well.

The truth is that nothing will change unless lawmakers feel pressure. Our responsibility is to assure they feel the pressure from the citizenry at least equal to the pressure they feel from other interest groups.

Talk to friends and define your feelings about what's going on. Compose a position on the issues that matter to you and send this to your legislators. The more names the better.


Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Subprime Mess and Property Taxes

Maybe it doesn't seem like there is a connection between the worldwide financial meltdown and our property taxes but both suffer from the same delusion.

The sub-prime mortgage meltdown has been blamed for the worst financial crash since the great depression. What happened? In a word, people were treating the market values of homes as if they were real money. When the market said a home was worth umpteen dollars people acted as if they really had umpteen dollars. But the dollar value was in fact NOT REAL. The value of a home, or other property, becomes real only when a buyer is willing to pay you umpteen dollars - only then is it worth it.

The market driven housing bubble continued to expand and people continued to act as if those inflated prices were real cash and they borrowed against those values. When reality set in and housing prices began to fall back, people panicked and began selling, further driving down prices. The cascade was devastating to the entire financial structure as people began to understand that they were spending an illusion.

Property taxes are much the same. Property owners pay their taxes on the same illusion that drove the housing bubble - the market price of homes. The bizarre result after revaluations is that about a third of property owners pay LOWER taxes. That is not a misprint, I said lower! These decreases are paid for by the rest whose market values have increased more than the tax levy. Some owners saw their taxes double! We are being taxed on an illusion.

In times such as these it would not be surprising that the more modestly valued homes might even see their values increase more than the high priced homes and the results would devastate moderate income people. This entire system of property taxes suffers from the same illusion as the sub-prime mortgage frenzy. Isn't it time to change the system and distribute the property tax burden in a fair manner?

Please see our website for a different way to pay our tax levies in a fair and reasonable manner and maybe even attract new businesses at the same time.

Monday, November 17, 2008

From Mutually Assured Destruction to Mutually Assured Defense

The thought occurs to me that the most effective way to accomplish the goal of reducing the threat of missile attacks would be to sell our BMDS (Ballistic Missile Defense Strategy) technology to any country that wanted it, especially unfriendly nations who see missile defense as a threat to their security and a provocative act on the part of the US.

In a reversal of the MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) philosophy of the Cold War of the 60's I believe this would reduce the emphasis on building up nuclear arsenals and missiles on all sides. If the technology were effective enough it would make the possession of such weapons moot and an unnecessary expense for all nations.

Selling and installing this technology world wide might even be a source of revenue for the United States.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


First, my apologies for making this so long but it's a big subject and I hope you're patient.

As if we didn’t already have enough to worry about, there’s a new virus whose symptoms are so subtle that most people don’t know they’ve been infected. IGNORAPATHY RIGIDITIS gets its name from the symptoms of it’s victims - ignorance, apathy and rigidity. It is currently unclear whether the virus produces these symptoms or is attracted to them, but the association is undeniable. And it’s spreading among all segments of society; regular people, pundits, experts and elected officials. As yet there is no vaccine.

How can you tell if you’ve been infected? Early symptoms are mild, first appearing as a desire to make everything simple. As the virus grows, so do symptoms; the need for a scapegoat when facing a problem and then an urge to yawn when answers require more than one sentence. IGNORAPATHY RIGIDITIS is spreading and evidence is everywhere. For example, here are two statements from recent articles in the Providence Journal:

1) “What I believe to be the root cause of the problem is the lack of qualified teachers”

2) “This crisis was not caused by capitalism’s being fatally flawed. It was caused by politicians forcing banks to give out bad loans”

Education and the economy are real problems and each statement suggests a simple answer to these problems. The unfortunate truth is that these are complex problems and these simplistic solutions indicate infection with IGNORAPATHY RIGIDITIS.

In an Oct. 17, 2008 Wall Street Journal article John Stossel explains why we shouldn’t interfere with the free market, and he gives an example of a skating rink and how people, when left alone, manage to make their own rules and solve their own problems. “Like skaters at an ice rink, we trace our way in the economy making decisions for ourselves. It works out pretty darned well.”

Really? This simple minded example satisfies only those already infected with IGNORAPATHY RIGIDITIS.

Think about it for just a moment and the problems become obvious. What if faster, more powerful skaters begin racing, intimidating slower skaters and even knocking down some of the more vulnerable, such as children? What if the more entrepreneurial skaters banded together, took over the better lanes and then charged others a fee to use them?

Of course the ‘market’ might eventually correct these problems but until and unless it does, many people will be harmed. A nation is far more complex than a skating rink, yet this simple minded view seems adequate for those who are satisfied by the simplest of answers and don’t think beyond their own self interest.

Likewise, when we address our education problems, too often the suggestion is more tax money. But Rhode Island already has the 7th highest per pupil spending*, 10th highest teacher pay† but performance averages only 35th highest*. Clearly more money will not solve this problem. *(NAEP 2003 data) †(NEA 2006 data)

Susceptibility to IGNORAPATHY RIGIDITIS seems to increase when we stop doing the work necessary to separate facts from fiction.

Environmental factors too, can increase susceptibility; these include the passive nature of today’s news, the displacement of print news by TV and talk radio, which require little active involvement on our part; information endlessly streams across the screen or from the radio, requiring no action or thought. We are subjected to a litany of narrow minded assaults of one group against another, particularly on talk radio, which are absorbed, thoughtlessly and uncritically. Our immune systems become weaker. For instance:

“Democrats and liberals want government to provide everything for everyone, especially those lazy people on welfare. People don’t have to be responsible for themselves since the government will provide solutions for everyone. More taxes diverted from the rich to the poor will solve the problems.”

“Conservatives and Republicans are racists and don’t care about the poor, believe that the free markets always provide the best solutions and government should keep out of the way. If someone hasn’t a place to live, or medical insurance, or enough food to eat, it’s probably their own fault.”

We insist on the simplest answers to the most important of today’s issues. But as problems become more and more complex, we’ve become less and less involved and informed. In other words, our ‘immune systems’, which are designed to protect us against disease, get weaker and weaker, and we risk infection by IGNORAPATHY RIGIDITIS.

And when statements or comments challenge our preconceived ideas we ignore them rather than reevaluate those beliefs and prejudices. A sure sign of an IGNORAPATHY RIGIDITIS infection.

So we don’t question what we hear or read in the newspapers (at least those of us who read more than the sports pages and comics). We assume our [party] leaders tell the truth, and the others don’t. But no one is immune to IGNORAPATHY RIGIDITIS, our favorite lawmakers included.

To make matters worse, we’ve become victims of our own success. As our nation has become more and more affluent we have become ever more impatient. Delayed gratification? Never heard of it. We need that first house now, and if it takes two incomes and lots of debt, so be it. It’s the American dream isn’t it? Everyone says so.

So, not surprisingly, we find ourselves in the midst of economic problems unprecedented in modern times. Although we want answers we still get impatient, even bored if the answers are involved and more complex than a simple black or white, a yes or no, some one to blame. And what’s the government doing?

After all, our legislative process is supposed to produce the best of outcomes, laws that are best for the people. Opposing points of view, opposing ideologies, vie for support and from this process is supposed to arise the best answers for us all. But do they?

Think for a moment about the legislative process compared to a court trial.

The ultimate goal of a trial is to uncover truth. We try to do this by having opposing sides, the prosecution and defense, each presenting evidence, its interpretation of events, its opinions, to a jury. A judge insures that the evidence is presented in a fair and legal manner and that there is no undue influence of the jurors.

The jury’s job is to weigh the evidence, vote and come to a decision, a verdict. That’s our judicial system, arguably the best in the world.

Compare that to making laws. There are opposing sides, usually Republican and Democrat, who discuss, cajole, persuade, argue - similar to a trial. But there is no jury and no impartial judge. The final “verdict” depends on which side has more votes, which side makes the best deals, and which side manipulates the House and Senate rules to their best advantage. There is too little respect for other opinions and ideas.

Issues degenerate into an either/or contest. You’re either with us or against us. Pro-union or anti-union. Democratic proposal - good, or Republican proposal - bad. The minority point of view is too often ridiculed or even worse, ignored. As a result, outcomes often are not the best they can be, but rather are what’s best for a special interest group, an industry or a constituency. IGNORAPATHY RIGIDITIS at work.


One might say that we the people are the jury, that we render a ‘verdict’ with our votes at election time. In this state in particular, we rarely do. Too many legislators run unopposed – is it a true verdict if there is only one choice on the ballot? The single party checkbox is proof of this and should be banned from every ballot as anti-democratic.

And we, the ‘jury’, never even get to hear the evidence, the legislative discussion, if that information is even available to the average voter. One has to wonder if lawmakers themselves can adequately weigh the evidence, given the huge amount of legislation rushed through the Assembly in much too short a time at the end of the legislative session.

And by election time it’s hard to review how lawmakers voted. Elections aren’t actually the result of knowledge and thought but more the result of habit.

The best answers, the best laws, can come only after a respectful dialogue among lawmakers, an honest consideration of all views, in the open, where all of us can access the proceedings, producing a consensus that will deliver the best legislation possible.

But lawmakers aren’t the only ones to blame. As was said earlier, there is rarely one simple answer to complex problems and we have complex problems. If we want the best government, we too must be better citizens than we have been. We need to attend town council and school committee meetings. We have to become informed. We have to discuss government in our schools and especially in our homes, with our friends and family. We must vote. Anything less is unhealthy, dare I say un-American. IGNORAPATHY RIGIDITIS may even be fatal.

Many years ago a comic strip character, Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us”. Pogo was right.

An anthropologist once observed that bees and ants aren’t very smart as individuals, but as communities they are incredibly successful. We, as the most intelligent creatures on earth, often don’t do as well as insects!

Can we reinvigorate our immune systems and cure IGNORAPATHY RIGIDITIS? I think so.

1. Listen to all sides and think. The ‘other’ side just might have legitimate points that should be considered and discussed further.

2. Pay attention to what happens in the legislature. Follow the votes of your representatives. Are they the best for everyone or just for a small group? Demand transparency, better access to legislative proceedings. (

3. Attend town meetings and school committee meetings. They decide the quality of life in our communities!

4. Talk about government and politics with friends and neighbors. Exposure to many ideas is good. First listen, think, discuss, only then decide. AND VOTE.

The true patriot is not the one who waves an American flag
but the one who works to make America better.

Or maybe we don’t really care very much. If that’s the case, may Heaven help us.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Sexism is alive and well

On Friday, April 25, 2008 there appeared two articles, side by side, on the front page of the Providence Journal's Rhode Island section.

One article was about David McCullough's talk at Bryant University. Just imagine if the reporter had written something like:

McCullough, who has won Pulitzer Prizes for his biographies of presidents Harry Truman and John Adams, has snow white hair and was wearing a brown single breasted suit, blue tie and grey shirt and wing tipped shoes, told his audience, "When you examine their lives you find a common thread."

The other article covered Lorraine Bracco's talk at the Westin about her depression, a serious topic indeed. In this description your reporter writes:

"...she realized that she was suffering from a deep depression. "The vortex had a hold on me," said the actress, who has shoulder-length brown hair, and wore a tailored charcoal-colored pantsuit and spike heeled open-toed sandals.

How demeaning and insulting to women and the message.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Cut minimum wages to help low wage earners.

A very seductive article by Adam Schaeffer on the Sunday Providence Journal's Commentary page, "Minimum wage hikes depress job growth".

Among his conclusions based on his data analysis are:

1. These [hikes] hurt those most in need of work,
2. Mandated wage hikes produce corresponding reduction in employment for black young adults and teens.
3. Lower employment rates.

The logic and supporting statistics are persuasive. However, there's this from from ""

Contrary to the stereotype of the minimum wage worker as a teenager with nothing to purchase but junk food and movie tickets, the typical minimum wage worker is an adult providing more than half of his or her family’s total earnings. According to the Economic Policy Institute, nearly half of families with a worker who would benefit from a minimum wage increase rely on that worker’s pay as the family’s only source of earnings.

I have to wonder if the Mr. Schaeffer believes that lowering the minimum wage would be good for low income workers and those most in need of work.

How about lowering it to less than $5.15, $5.00, $4.50? Good times ahead for the low wage worker. Right.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Fair and Sane Property Taxes are possible

Can there be anyone left who doesn't understand that Rhode Island is in deep financial trouble? The Governor made it very plain in his State of the State address that in broad terms, we need to (1) cut expenses, (2) find added revenue, and (3) avoid raising taxes. All are reasonable goals.

How about a specific property tax plan to

1. attract business,
2. reduce the pressure on homeowners to leave because of high property taxes and
3. allow Rhode Island to adhere to its own Constitutional obligation to insure that "the burdens of the state are fairly distributed among its citizens"?

The idea? That no property owners, commercial or residential, shall receive a property tax increase greater than 4% in any one year. One might be tempted to think we already have accomplished this with the soon to be 4% cap on the local tax levy. Not so. There is no limit on the tax increase any property owner can receive as long as we require taxes based on periodic revaluations be applied to all tax payers every third year.

I am convinced that a 4% property tax limit would make our state a magnet for business to locate here, not only in their own self interest, but in the interest of their employees who might need to re-locate here. Maybe Rhode Island will no longer be the least business friendly state in the union.

Businesses would be able to take advantage of this limit as they prepare budgets instead of the very unpleasant (average) 37% tax increase received by three quarters of commercial property owners this past year long after their budgets were in place.

But it's not just about business. Homeowners whose property values have risen to the point that some must choose between paying their taxes or changing their life styles, or worse, selling their homes, would never happen again. And that assumes they could even sell their home in this awful housing market.

The R.I.G.H.T. plan will assure that every property owner will never receive more than a 4% property tax increase, that every property owner will pay his or her fair share. A new owner's initial tax bill will reflect true market value using a rate based on a revaluation, just as we do today.

At last, Rhode Island, The State of Fair and Sane Property Taxes. Sounds good.

For more see our website