Improving public administration one course at a time

Retirement is good, or so I’ve been told. I’ll let you know when I arrive after August 1. They say that it beats working for a living.

As I hang up my career though, I sure didn’t expect the opportunity to share my wisdom in any meaningful way. You expect cake in a conference room (got that), a dinner with colleagues after work (got that) and a farewell luncheon (that comes tomorrow). It used to be you expected a gold-plated watch, but as I’m a federal employee I won’t get that. Anyhow, in what feels sort of like a consolation prize, last month found me in Landsdowne, a conference facility northwest of Washington D.C. I was invited to help create a better curriculum in their masters of public administration degree.

My invitation came from my friend Tim, who got me into the federal civil service in the first place. Tim didn’t spend that long in the civil service. He did go back to school, got a PhD, ran a couple campaigns for Congress as a Democrat in an overwhelmingly red district (and lost badly) and most recently ended up on the staff of the American Public University System (APUS). The online university teaches careers in public administration, which is kind of what I spent the last thirty-three years doing. Since Tim knew me and knew I lived near Landsdowne, he convinced me to come and educate these educators on what public administration today was really about.

These days, you would think the last career anyone would aspire to is public administration. These people run governments: state, county, local and the federal government. Actually, they don’t so much run governments as administrate them. The sort of graduates APUS puts into the workforce aspire to positions like City Manager, where they get down and dirty into issues like making sure the city picks up the trash on time and fills the potholes. Some aspire to state or federal service, and it was the latter that made me of value to them.

Only I wasn’t sure I should have been there in the first place. For example, I was sitting in a room next the former mayor of Kansas City, Mark Funkhouser. Mark is an impressive guy and I could see how he managed to be mayor for four years. He is smart, grounded, political and pragmatic, with a clear understanding of what governing is really about. The other guy at the table was Andrew J. Duck, another friend of Tim who like Tim had run two campaigns for Congress, and lost. Mr. Duck now works for Northrup Grumman, which sells his expertise on intelligence issues to the Pentagon. Two guys, a facilitator, a note taker and the rather obscure me: a nerdy guy who manages a public information system. We were there to answer the question: what should APUS do to make their curriculum more relevant? The prize, such as it was for a couple of hours around a conference table, was an insulated coffee mug and a really good catered lunch.

I felt like the odd man out. Mr. Duck, for example, had not just keen insights into the intelligence business, but totally got public administration and the imperfect art of governing including the crazy disconnect between what the public expects and what is actually possible. (Attention citizens: with limited taxes not all problems can be solved instantly.) Mr. Funkhouser had actually walked the walk, managing a huge and diverse city and walking the fine line that politicians walk: being effective and political at the same time. It’s hard to be both. I felt outclassed. We browsed the course curriculum and were asked a number of leading questions while guys with cameras and microphones occasionally came in and captured our images and voices.

Their curriculum did not particularly surprise me, but a lot of it seemed marginally relevant. At least in the federal government, public administration is a very different beast. Citizens are less in your face than they are at the local level, while the amount of rules, regulations and policies you are supposed to adhere to often feel overwhelming. It’s a wonder we manage to do any governing at all. How many people would knowingly choose to spend thirty or more years of their lives in the bowels of the federal bureaucracy?

It was never my explicit choice; it just sort of worked out that way because I lived in the Washington D.C. area. How do you prepare someone for a life in the bureaucratic trenches? How do you inspire them? Most importantly, how can they be effective in this environment? It’s a grinding and grating world for most of us inside it, pulled between irreconcilable forces. There are the rules, which frequently change. There is your senior leadership, which is also frequently changing and who will push political agendas of the current president, which are often counterproductive and downright wacky. (Bush’s faith-based initiatives was one of the wackier ones.) There is Congress, which consists of people who generally belong in rubber rooms and most of whom haven’t a lick of common sense about how the real world works. There is the workforce consisting of generally good people who are often treated shabbily. And there is the bureaucracy itself: hard to understand and appreciate until you are stuck in the middle of it, where it sort of makes sense after a while, but makes no sense to an outsider.

Fortunately, I was able to contribute a few ideas that look that it will actually make it into their program in a year or two. First was the strange absence of acquisition education in their curriculum. Governments spend boatloads of money and much of it actually goes outside the agency to the private sector for goods and services. At least in the federal government, there is this confusing rulebook, the Federal Acquisition Regulation. It was hard for me to imagine anyone doing public administration without knowledge of how to procure these things legally and get a genuine best value, and also do it intelligently.

Being in information technology, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of education in this area too. You are training to administer government, but you have no idea of an information technology life cycle? No idea that you will have systems written in house, and others that will be pulled off the shelf, and they all have to talk to each other all the time? No idea that systems are born and die, and their replacements have to be carefully planned and paid for? No appreciation for what a CIO or a CTO does? No one expects a public administrator to write code in C++, but you sure need to understand that solid and reliable information pins together public administration and something about the architecture that makes the magic possible. It all has to work together seamlessly and tell you things that are relevant. If it doesn’t, you can’t do your job.

So I did my part for future bureaucrats and administrators. If you are crazy enough to want to do this stuff professionally, thanks to Mark, Andrew and me, perhaps future public administrators will have the skills they need in today’s crazy world of government.

Okay, I gave back. Now maybe I’ll take up golf.


The graduation speech

Attention graduates! Here is why you really went to college and what you should have gotten out of it. Did you absorb the lesson?

The point of education is not just to give you a leg up so you can survive and have a higher standard of living, but so you can see beyond the surface and to think independently and originally and discern cause and effect independently in a complex and increasingly confusing world.

Welcome to adulthood.

Cutting the apron strings

She took her final exam today, the very last exam for her very last class in a journey that consumed five years (two in community college) and three at Virginia Commonwealth University. “She” would be my daughter, age 23, who now merely needs to wait for the mail to get her diploma for a bachelor’s degree in English. Despite some prodding, she doesn’t want to attend her own graduation.

Which means she is mostly home now and we will continue to pay the rent on what will likely be her empty room in Richmond through the end of July. She needs to find a job but if her experience is like mine it may be a year or two before she finds a “real” job, assuming there are real jobs for people with English degrees. There are a few of them out there, and I am not talking about “do you want fries with that” jobs at the local Burger King. A real job for a while though might be working at a Costco or Wegmans, where they pay a living wage, which would be great because I don’t want her to get too attached to her old bedroom. Rather, it’s time for her to move out once and for all.

It’s hard to say how long that will take but I’ll lay odds somehow a year from now she will still be inhabiting her bedroom. Young adults today are painfully aware of the true cost of living, which is much higher than it was when I was a youth. This may be because so many things are assumed: the car, the smartphone, health insurance, high speed Internet and they are used to mom and dad paying for them. I don’t care if $12 an hour really is a living wage these days; that probably won’t buy you all of the above, even with a roommate or two.

What she wants to do is goof off, sleep late, stay up all night and when not distracted by things on the Internet write the great novel that probably won’t get sold, at least not without a whole lot more pain and suffering. Fortunately she is a bit more realistic now and is sending out random resumes, which suggests intent to find a job but not necessarily serious commitment. She could live a lot cheaper, assuming she lived alone, by settling in Richmond where she just finished her degree. But the jobs would pay a lot less and she seems happy to be home on a more or less full time basis. She actually cleaned her room and removed heaps of trash off her desk the other day. Either she is trying to get her life in order or she is planning to start a new burrow. Time will tell.

We’ve suggested some employers that might hire English majors. A friend at my church works for Motley Fool, and they hire English majors. Except she knows nothing about personal finance other than living on our money and making her allowance stretch until the end of the month. She wants to learn less, although I have provided a couple books on personal finance as a “gift”. The headquarters of Learning Tree in nearby Reston is near us. They teach mostly leading edge technology courses to people whose employers have deep pockets. They need people to write content for their web pages and course curriculum. And I have another friend whose office is always willing to hire college graduates, providing they want to learn the business of making specialized contact lenses. She worked there briefly out of high school and found it didn’t agree with her. I doubt she would want to give it another try.

Still, it is an accomplishment having a degree of any kind, and getting a degree in English is more interesting than it seems. She wrote a thesis on arguably the world’s worst English poet, William McGonagall. She learned a lot about Old English, and obscure Scottish literature. She interned at a Richmond publishing house and worked with female prisoners at a local jail teaching creative writing. Mainly she had the university experience, such as it is today, minus the fun stuff like sororities. She is not social enough for that stuff. She had the usual mixture of brilliant and mediocre professors, ate in the dining halls, learned that parking tickets cost real money, and that you can have really crappy roommates.

We learned that college education today is very expensive. Once we entertained the idea that, as parents with one child, we could send her to a private university. What a crazy idea! Her bachelor’s degree took a year longer than we budgeted. We paid for two cars, only because she wrecked the first one driving home with a homeless kitten. The expenses added up quickly. The nearly final total according to Quicken:  $116,238.05, or $36,238.05 more than the $80,000 I thought we were going to spend. And these are just the direct costs. It’s amazing anyone can afford to get any kind of degree these days. At least she graduates debt free. We were her scholarship fund.

Parenting is not over. Now comes the coaching phase, followed by the nagging and heaping on the guilt phase if necessary. The job hunting is still poor, and bad in particular for English majors with lackluster GPAs. At least here in Northern Virginia the unemployment rate is relatively low, but the mere hassle of commuting around here will probably ensure that she calls someplace far away from here home eventually.

A new adventure called real life awaits her. “What’s it like, dad?” she asked me some weeks ago. “Well, it’s not a lot of fun. But you get used to it.” And really, that’s about the most honest thing you can say about adulthood. I wish you the best, kid, but it’s time for you to cut the apron strings and fully direct your own life. Hopefully, we gave you enough of the tools to make your life meaningful but for the most part the rest will be up to you.

Advice to Democrats

I love to give advice, even though if I am inconsistent in following my own advice. Recently after their losses in the latest election I gave some advice to Republicans. Today, I figure turnabout is fair play. Here is some advice for Democrats.

Democrats, it’s easy to assume that due to changing demographics that Republicans are in permanent decline and that in a few election cycles Congress will resemble itself during the 1960s and 1970s, when it was overwhelmingly Democratic. That may happen but if you think this will happen solely because of demographic changes, you are wrong. It may not happen at all.

Republicans still control the House, and a majority of governorships and state legislatures. In short, the party remains a huge and powerful political force. Even at the national level, Democratic control is fragile. Democratic control of the House remains elusive and made less likely by redistricting and the resulting highly gerrymandered districts. In the Senate, Democrats survived a very tough election and actually added a couple of seats to their majority. Our 55 seats include two independent senators caucusing with the Democrats. In 2014, Democrats will again be fighting headwinds as more Democrats run for reelection than Republicans.

Of course to really get things done in the Senate a party needs a supermajority, which is 60 seats. However, even when we have 60 seats, it is very easy for Democrats to split into factions. Democrats rarely show the sort of unanimity that Republicans do. The Affordable Care Act was a prime example, passing late and watered down, with certain senators in conservative leaning states (like Max Baucus) leveraging oversized influence and some senators (Joe Lieberman comes to mind) acting obnoxious and petulant. In retrospect, it’s amazing it was passed into law in even its watered down state.

The news is better on the presidential front. It used to be that by default Republicans were more likely to win presidential contests, due to various demographic and electoral vote advantages. Those days appear over. It is unlikely that any true conservative Republican (at least “conservative” in its modern and antediluvian form) can win for the foreseeable future. Of course, it all depends on who gets nominated, and arguably Democrats have nominated some stinkers with little national appeal including John Kerry, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. In short, when choosing nominees Democrats can tend to be as highly-partisan as Republicans, choosing from their hearts instead of their heads. Choose someone without broad appeal and the party is likely to lose despite favorable demographics.

Looking at the 2012 election, two factors worked in the Democrats favor. First were the obvious demographic changes that are turning traditionally red states blue. I live in such a state (Virginia), but it is blue principally only in national elections. We have a Republican house and senate, and a Republican governor, and an attorney general on the right side of the Tea Party. Other states like Ohio, traditionally a swing state, have a similarly Republican disposition but are turning reliably blue in national elections. The most important reason that Democrats won this time is that they turned out the base. Democrats outnumber Republicans nationally, so they win when they turn out the base. They tend to lose, and lose badly, when they stay home. Independents tend to swing more toward voting Republican, so turning out the base is critical for maintaining and extending Democratic control. This means that selecting candidates on all levels that both excite the base but have mainstream appeal is critical for increasing Democratic power.

We may have a few cycles where Republicans will give Democrats a break. This is because Republicans have not really come to terms with their loss, which means finding a strategy appeals to moderates. At least at the moment, the critical mass of Republicans figure doing more of what lost them the last election, just with more sincerity, is how to get back into power. Perhaps after a couple more election drubbings they will figure it out.

Democrats have a tendency to settle into comfortable factions within the party. This is less of a concern than it used to be, as conservative Democrats are in decline and liberal Democrats are ascending. When this happens, Democrats can become as ideologically stubborn as Republicans. However, it tends to hurt them more than it does Republicans. One of these fault lines has traditionally been in the area of gun control. Thoughtful Democrats need to discern between issues that they can win on and those they cannot. The gun control debate cannot be won at the ballot box, at least not for a couple of generations. Consequently there is no point wasting energy advocating for such issues. It will only boomerang against Democrats, despite the fact that sensible gun control regulation probably makes complete logical sense.

Instead, Democrats need to concentrate on issues that appeal to both Democrats and Independents generally. Gay marriage is one of these issues where the national consensus has changed. Americans fundamentally agree with the notion of equality and fairness, at least under the law. Being the party of the workingman is never bad either. Democrats need to continue to advocate for people at the low and middle income levels, and target policies that help these groups. There is no downside to this. Democrats also need to avoid bad habits, like sucking up to Wall Street, which is almost always going to vote Republican, or at least for the party which panders to their selfish interests the most. That Wall Street almost invariably does better under Democratic administrations seems lost on them.

Democrats also need to advocate for policies that are in the best interest of people generally, not necessarily those that are in the best interest of their most vocal groups. A good example of this is public schools and support of teachers’ unions. Democrats should insist that every child deserves a high quality education, even if they cannot afford it. They should not assume that a dysfunctional public school system that puts the needs of teachers ahead of students is acceptable. The public school model is clearly under stress, particularly in poorer neighborhoods. Democrats should be open to charter schools particularly in districts where public schools are clearly below par. They should also advocate for policies that nurture healthy students so they have the capacity to learn. This may mean, for example, that three healthy meals a day are served at schools. The school may need to morph to be more than a center of education, but be thought of as a second home for students, whose parents likely aren’t working 9 to 5. They should advocate for safe public housing for poorer students, with residency contingent upon good behavior and for the upkeep of rental property. It should be obvious to Democrats that the real problem with education in poor areas is not substandard teachers (although certainly there are many of them) but are mostly due to environmental factors. These include the lack of affordable healthy food, and stressful families and neighborhoods. Republicans, of course, will choose to remain clueless of this reality, since their brains cannot seem to absorb that a multiplicity of factors affect ability to learn, not evil union-loving teachers.

In short Democrats, having power is not about living drunk on the privilege of power when you get it. It’s about refusing to be headstrong when you are granted power and keeping a relentless focus on improving the common good. Democrats have to earn their keep. When they get sloppy for too long, they will lose power. More importantly, much of the good they have done can be lost too, and that would be the true tragedy.

Republicans: Let’s talk real national security

There is a little irony that a day after the Supreme Court narrowly decided the Affordable Care Act was constitutional after all, that I would undergo surgery. The surgery to correct a deviated septum (known as septoplasty) was actually scheduled six weeks earlier. My mother in law’s untimely death and my plastic surgeon’s busy schedule meant I had to wait until today for the outpatient surgery. It went well, but my time in the recovery room took longer than usual, perhaps due to aging. While waiting for the surgery, the TV playing in the waiting rooms was all about the Affordable Care Act decision.

My surgery was theoretically elective, but that did not seem to be the case for others in the waiting room. They included a ninety plus woman, virtually deaf due to plugged inner ears, who needed to get some tubes put into her ear so she could hear again. She looked miserable and her son acting for her largely could not communicate with her. Yet she was lucky. She was covered by Medicare. I was lucky too as I am covered by Blue Cross, and they approved my surgery. Even so I know there will be a whole slew of bills waiting me. It was nearly $900 just for the hospital to admit me. Doubtless the anesthesiologist and surgeon will bill as well, and there will be substantial copays for their services too. I’ll be lucky to escape this surgery for less than $2000, and that’s just for the copays. Blue Cross pays 85%.

I was back home by noon, my septum duly aligned and with various sinus polyps removed. Maybe this surgery will mean that I won’t need to spend my sleeping life tethered to a BiPAP machine for my sleep apnea. It’s a big maybe. Most likely I will continue to need the machine, but with the improved airflow, perhaps I can adjust the pressure settings downward, which would likely make sleep far more restful. Meanwhile I am downing Keflex and extra strength Tylenol every six hours and wearing a guard over my nose that is attached to little diapers to capture the bloody discharge from the surgery. Recovery from this sort of surgery is generally straightforward, and involves lots of use of QTips and hydrogen peroxide.

Mostly I am lucky because I am insured. My employer cares enough about me to provide it as a benefit, with me providing about a third of the cost of premiums. I am even luckier because even before the ACA I was already in a plan that required insurers to accept all comers. You see we federal employees have been been enjoying “Obamacare” for decades, and those employees I might add include members of Congress eager to repeal the ACA. And I must say, I like it. For decades I have been covered by health insurance, as has my wife and daughter. Insurers in the Federal Employees Health Benefit Plan have to accept people into their plans regardless of age and preexisting conditions. There are dozens of plans to choose from. On rare occasion, a health insurer will drop out of FEHBP, but it is a very rare occurrence. Mostly, health insurers are glad to cater to our market.

As I age, unsurprisingly, I have been using more health care services. I am quite certain that in spite of premium and my voluminous copays, we consume more in services than we pay in direct costs. It’s likely to be this way for the rest of my life. I don’t feel guilty about this. I feel grateful. I also feel like I’ve paid my dues. For the first twenty years or so that was likely not the case. I was paying for those older and sicker in the system. I did not resent this. It comes with the insurance territory. Health insurance only works if we are all in this together.

Essentially, the Supreme Court agreed yesterday. While Chief Justice Roberts surprisingly voted with the majority to uphold the law, and while he was silent about whether he personally thinks the ACA is a smart decision, he decided it is constitutional. This is good for our nation because by upholding the law at least for the moment he has likely fended off our devolution to a second world country.

Republicans are always anxious to vote more dollars for national security. I find it sad but curious that they don’t understand that national health insurance is also vital to national security. Most other first world countries figured this out decades ago, but we dithered. It is not surprising to me that since then we moved from greatest creditor country to greatest debtor country, and that our standard of living has devolved. National security is measured in many ways and it’s not just in the strength of our armed forces and intelligence. It is also measured by our willingness to invest in the human capital of its citizens so we can stay a prosperous country. In this we have been getting failing grades for some time.

We seem unwilling to pay the freight when it comes to education. We cheapen our public schools by increasing class sizes and shortening school years. We shortchange our public universities and expect students to mortgage more of their future by increasing tuition rates so they need to take out larger and larger student loans. This is keeping many from even attempting college, although many also have the talent. We also dumb down our curriculums. Courses like art, music and civics are considered expendable. Instead, we push highly structured and dumbed down standardized tests. Colleges are not immune from the phenomenon. As The Washington Post reported recently, college educations are becoming dumbed downed, or at least less time consuming. The Internet certainly makes research faster and more efficient. For most majors, the need for a full time college student to spend twelve hours a day on education, including often on weekends, as I did, is a thing of the past. I suspect this is to our detriment.

Education is vital to our national capital, but so also is our national health. It baffles me why this is not completely obvious. A healthy workforce is going to be more productive than a non-healthy one. If you are suffering from a health condition, your productivity is going to be compromised. If you suffer from a chronic condition, you may not be able to work at all. Where’s the good in that? Aside from inflicting needless misery on our citizens, why throw away the talent of so many of our citizens because they have a chronic condition? It’s such a tragic and needless waste and speaks poorly about what we really think about our fellow Americas. By throwing away our most precious asset, the skills of our own citizens, we guarantee our devolution as a nation. This is equally as dangerous to our national security, if not more dangerous, than securing our borders from illegal immigrants.

Mostly though while I waited for my surgery today I felt a mixture of relief and anger, not nervousness. The ACA, if we can keep it the law of the land, will do enormous amounts to make us a healthier and more productive nation, not just those like me still lucky enough to have health insurance. It will also relieve incredible amounts of unnecessary misery. Mostly though I felt anger that so many of my citizens are so ideological that they can no longer see our common humanity, who appear to think sadism is a virtue. These people, in the name of ideology would, like that heckler at a GOP debate last year, be enthusiastically rooting for people to be miserable and die.

The ACA gives us the opportunity once again to show our better nature. Let’s hope we find it again.

The last exam

I like to blog but increasingly it is getting hard to find time to indulge. My plate is normally piled pretty high with life during any week. I like to keep busy. For example, I teach a class on Tuesday night. That takes time and preparation but I consider it fun, in spite of the fact that it chews up part of my weekend and makes Tuesdays a sixteen-hour day. And there are lots of other things that keep me busy, including the usual: a full time job, various onerous and not so onerous duties around the house, exercise and other volunteer activities.

Blogging requires leisure time, and at least this week it has been largely nonexistent. This is because in addition to teaching a class, I got to sit in the classroom this week. I got to be a student again, which in this case meant cramming a semester course into three days. Speaking for middle age people everywhere who encounter this: Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!

The course in question is this one. I won’t identify the vendor except to say I got to take it locally in nearby Fairfax, Virginia, and the view from the 11th floor of this office building is impressive. Taking the course and hopefully passing the exam was challenging, in part because I am a middle aged dude, grad school is more than a decade in my past, and those old studying and cramming skills have atrophied. There is no denying it: I am just not the student I once was. Perhaps I have become a bit soft, or maybe it is just general laziness. I wish my mind were as supple and capable of absorbing knowledge as it used to be. Hunkering down at age 54 has become really hard to do.

“Why am I doing this?” I kept asking myself. The training was not required and I suggested it to my boss, in part because I had an employee take it and she found it useful. I am not required to get a certain number of continuing education credits every year, but when I had to in the past getting the course certificate was good enough. But certain courses demand more. They demand that they monopolize your life for the time you take them. This course was a three-day course, but it essentially packed in a semester course into three days. It came complete with a high stakes professional exam at the end that had to be shipped to Great Britain for official scoring. I won’t know for a week if I passed. I can say that it was one of the hardest exams I have ever had to take, and that includes the SAT. Some of my classmates were sweating bullets. Their jobs literally depended on passing the test.

Fortunately, the instructor coached us heavily. When you have a course book with more than three hundred pages, there is no way to read it in three days. She knew what to have us focus on and what could safely be ignored. She had us bookmark certain pages and underline key phrases. Even so the course was incredibly briskly paced. Moreover, it came with plenty of homework. Except for some few hours of poor sleep, the course consumed your life for three days.

I was lucky because my boss did not demand that I take the exam. But once in the class my darned sense of professionalism and pride kicked in. How could I shamefully audit the class when everyone else was sweating it? And who knows, maybe I would put the material to use, in spite of the fact that I am rapidly approaching retirement age. Mainly the peer pressure got to me. So I jumped in headfirst and hoped I would make it to the other side of the pool, which looked so far away.

It all felt and was quite daunting, but I know twenty years earlier it would have felt much less so. The course’s pace made my heart beat faster. My hand raced to keep up with the notes I was taking. Very soon my head started throbbing because the fire hose of information just kept coming at me. At the end of the day I staggered home only to find a stack of homework that had to be done, notes to be reviewed, highlighted and terms committed to memory, and my mind fatigued and numb. Perhaps it was psychosomatic, but I started to develop cold symptoms. They were really stress symptoms. I was like a Ford with 200,000 miles on it, rarely driven faster than sixty miles an hour suddenly being asked to drive at 120 miles an hour for a hundred miles.

Even with all that preparation and coaching, when I took the practice exam I managed to squeak by with only one point. We quickly reviewed it and our mistakes, and then were given the real exam that was considerably harder than the practice exam. I won’t know for a week or so if I passed. I’m guessing I probably passed, but likely just barely. If I were twenty years younger I might have scored twenty points higher. But those days are sadly behind me. The CPUs in my brain have slowed down over the years. Indexing all that material left some broken links and filing the material was a slow process. The more supple minds around me, principally brilliant students from India and China, seemed to handle it with equanimity.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this will be the last exam I have to take in my life. If I have to take another, I should get some sort of handicap for age. Perhaps I needed the same class to be a day longer and not quite so hurried and harried.

For now much of my week remains a cloud of intensity and mental pain that has passed, I hope for good.

So many privatization opportunities abound

Unless you live in the state of Virginia, you may have missed the news that our ubiquitous state owned ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control) stores may be going the way of the dinosaur. Governor Bob McDonnell promised in his campaign to turn them over to the private sector. He says that the private sector would run liquor stores much more efficiently than the government. In addition, by selling more liquor these private stores would generate additional revenues to help address Virginia’s chronically under funded transportation system. This sure sounds sweet.

Yet, the governor recently ran the numbers again. Maybe turning over ABC stores to the private sector won’t be the VDOT’s salvation after all. While McDonnell swore he would not raise taxes, he did recently float the trial balloon of adding a “fee” to alcoholic beverages sold in the state. A “fee” apparently is not the same thing as a tax. This tax fee should help make up the $250 million dollars in revenues brought in across the state by these ABC stores. Wow! That’s a lot of fees!

It’s unclear to me what the advantage of turning over these ABC stores to the private sector actually is. Whether it does or does not save money seems to be beside the point. A good Republican, after all, believes that the private sector always operates more efficiently than the government. ABC stores were created after prohibition was repealed to control the hard liquor-drinking problem in the state as well as to assure that the state got its proper share of taxes on alcohol. If ABC stores are decommissioned, presumably, I could pick up a bottle of Jack Daniels at the local Shoppers Food Warehouse and save myself a trip to the state owned package store.

It strikes me that state owned package stores are just the tip of the “socialist” iceberg that enlightened Republicans could rid us of, thus giving us more freedom and keeping taxes low. Republicans in Congress, and particularly the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, have their eyes on Social Security and Medicare. The latest groupthink seems to be that neither of these programs is sacrosanct and they can be “managed” by turning them into voucher programs. Send recipients vouchers and let them buy an annuity or old age health care with their voucher through this magic called shopping around for the best deal. If the voucher doesn’t quite cover living expenses to the same degree as the government has, well, that’s too bad but that’s better than “socialism”. At least costs are contained and thanks to the magic efficiency of the private sector, somehow people will be able to buy much more value with their vouchers than through some sort of “socialist” government-run program.

Republicans for years have been advocating for parents to use vouchers buy their way into private or charter schools instead of their local public school. Why settle for mediocre public schools, goes the thought, when some private charter school around the corner will give better results for less money? Likely, their staff would not belong to any stinking teachers’ union. This would help drive value, although it might also depress teachers’ wages.

Why stop with public schools? Why have public colleges or universities? Surely, the magic of the private sector can work its magic if they too were privatized. To a good Republican, even an institution as renown as Texas A&M should be on the chopping block. If the horror of socialism existing in our public schools can be dealt with through the magic of vouchers, surely “socialist” public colleges and universities can be run more efficiently as well if sold to the private sector. After all, tuition increases far exceed the cost of living. Something must be rotten in our public universities and competition is surely the solution.

Strangely, it doesn’t appear that private universities offer a better deal. The Washington Post, whose holding company also owns Kaplan University, calculated that students pay nearly four times as much from Kaplan for an associate’s degree in business administration as do students attending Northern Virginia Community College ($33,390 vs. $8500). It is also true that the state subsidizes NVCC and other public universities, but clearly not so much as to make up the staggering difference between NVCC and Kaplan. From all the evidence, it appears that public colleges and universities offer a much better value for students than private colleges and universities.

Clearly, NVCC is not in the business of making a profit, unlike Kaplan, whose shareholders want regular stock dividends. Kaplan may be targeting those who need more flexibility in their educational schedules and don’t mind paying extra for the privilege. Most students finance at least a portion of their education. Since our “socialist” governments seem to be in the student loan business, they are essentially funding many students’ private educations. Yet while nationwide only ten percent of college students go to private universities, 44% of student loan defaults happen to students attending private universities. Could it be that private universities care more about profits than whether their students actually graduate?

Nonetheless, public universities should be a choice target for Republicans. Why not just issue tuition vouchers for students to use where they want and privatize our public universities as well? Shouldn’t it just invigorate competition in the educational marketplace and thus drive down costs? Oddly, it just doesn’t seem to be working out that way. Private universities seem to be targeting the high-end market, not the low-end. It looks like outsourcing our public colleges and universities would only make college less affordable to those who need it the most. But when ideology is more important than facts, why be bothered? Think of all the money taxpayers could save by not maintaining those colleges, universities and public schools. Just give them a voucher if they whine and let people shop around!

If they return to power in November, there are all sorts of opportunities for Republicans to deliver on their privatization agenda. I was going to suggest that our public roads could be turned over to the private sector, but that’s already underway here in Northern Virginia, where High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes are being added to the Capital Beltway, ensuring that the well moneyed won’t have to deal with the inconvenience of traffic. VDOT can no longer be bothered to run the Dulles Toll Road, and turned it over to the local airport authority. Prisons are also being outsourced in many states; the Corrections Corporation of America apparently provides cells for many if not most Arizona prison inmates. In addition, as the Bush Administration demonstrated, war can largely be outsourced these days too. Ask Blackwater. Their stockholders did quite well in the last decade, although the value of their services looks suspect. Even the Obama Administration is getting into the outsourcing act. It wants the private sector to provide rockets to ferry astronauts into space. Curiously, most Republicans are against the idea. It’s probably because it was proposed by a Democrat.

In any event, we have just scratched the surface at innovative ways to reduce “socialism” here in America. It is true that Thomas Jefferson might roll in his grave at Monticello if his beloved public University of Virginia went private, but when it comes to ideology we must not let two hundred years of tradition and a dead president’s feelings stand in the way of innovating the private sector.

It simply has to be all for the best!

The dangers of deficit fever

Why study history? After all, many people (particularly students) find history boring. However, there are excellent reasons for studying history. By observing our actions in the past and their effect we can predict with a fair amount of confidence whether they will work again. For example, based on our experience during the Great Depression, cutting spending lead to less economic activity and prolonged the Great Depression. Lesson: the government should keep spending in ways that stimulate the economy until a recovery is sustainable.

So what are we doing as we just begin to emerge from the Great Recession? Why, we are cutting spending! With history as our example, we now know that we are almost guaranteeing a double dip recession. Moreover, what we are cutting suggests profoundly stupid choices. It appears that whenever we finally emerge from our economic doldrums and near double-digit unemployment, our status of still being a superpower will be problematical.

It is easy to look at countries like Greece, which is in the midst of a terrible deficit-driven crisis, and figure we need to buckle down ourselves. Greece is buckling down, largely because it had no choice. Here is what austerity is also bringing in Greece: a sharp and marked drop in standards of living, a rise in already high unemployment rates, and credit that is hard to get and when available only at usury rates. There is also a lot of civil strife. Students, pensioners and government employees are marching in the streets. Rioters have already killed some people and damaged considerable property. Greece is on the edge of anarchy.

However, here in the United States both our “welfare state” and our total debt as a percentage of GDP is a fraction of Greece’s. This suggests we are in no danger immediate danger from excessive debt. In fact, as financial markets now look shaky again, even more money is flowing into U.S. Treasury bills. So our country is still seen as a safe haven for money, and our debt is seen as good debt, at least compared with other investments. Unlike in Greece, only a small percentage of us retiring at fifty-five or sixty are retiring on a pension. Most of those retiring are retiring only because they lost their jobs and no one will hire them.

Having lost their jobs, they have far less money in their pocket, so they are spending less. When people spend less and earn less, governments collect less in the way of taxes. For the most part, state and local governments cannot raise taxes enough to make up the difference, so they must cut services instead. And since states and local governments have little in the way of bloat, essential services are being cut. Firefighters, police and teachers that thought they had steady jobs are finding themselves unemployed. Here is a real trickledown effect. Because they have less to spend, retailers receive less and perhaps cut their workforce, or reduce hours. When retailers sell less, they need less from wholesalers who also cut jobs. When wholesalers need less, producers and manufacturers make less so they cut jobs. So the economic effect keeps trickling down, exacerbating unemployment, reducing tax revenues and extending our economic doldrums.

Moreover, our supposedly precious children are getting inferior educations. They are stuffed into classrooms with more students, lose opportunities for extracurricular activities and in at least 120 school districts have four-day school weeks. We will depend on their income in our own retirements, but it’s hard to understand how. By teaching them less today, they will likely be behind children in other countries. All these negative effects are because we are now alarmed over short-term deficits that it appears we can comfortably sustain over the short term.

If you have trouble starting your car, you might pump the accelerator hoping the engine will start. The same is true with our economy. What you don’t do is the moment it sputters to life stop giving it gas.

Deficits remain important in the long term. However, Republicans don’t seem to understand that raising taxes is a viable way to solve deficits. If deficits are truly more important than anything else is, then raising taxes has to be on the table. Otherwise, keeping taxes low is more important than deficits, which is the philosophy they have traditionally embraced. It is also important to get spending in line with revenues. But first things first. First the economy has to be vibrant enough so that economic activity reduces unemployment and drives wealth. When this happens, tax collections also increase, reducing deficits.

Unquestionably, we waste and misdirect much of our tax dollars. Our spending on war in Afghanistan is an egregious waste of money because it is a lost cause. A lot of the money given to the Afghan government instead lines the pockets of its largely corrupt Afghan officials. It also goes to pay off warlords who look the other way so our supply trucks carry cargo safely to remote locations. Aside from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, huge amounts of money are wasted within the Department of Defense. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates agrees. There is also huge waste in the Medicare system. Some of these expenditures, like building aircraft engines we don’t need, do feed American families. However, but they don’t go to buy things we need to make our country stronger and safer.

It’s pretty clear what we do need to do.  We need to create jobs for the unemployed that will leave us with a stronger country. Jobs provide money, but also feed faith in the future. You don’t get there by laying off teachers, policemen and firemen. These are our first priorities, which is why it makes no sense for Republicans (and one turncoat Democrat) to kill a bill that keeps them employed. You also get there by building and rebuilding bridges and roads, funding innovative research for the 21st century and by investing in the educational needs of all our citizens, activities that are underway but where more money is likely needed. You don’t get there by cutting off unemployment benefits because people have been two years without a job. All that does is breed poverty and homelessness. However, if a chronically unemployed person at least has a check coming in, maybe he can pay his rent and buy food and clothing. That money stimulates a lot of economic activity.

You also raise taxes where it makes sense to do so. Aside from the poor economy, what is feeding the deficit? Mostly tax cuts that we gave to the richest Americans. These are people who can certainly afford to pay more taxes and in some cases genuinely want to pay more taxes. These huge tax cuts drove the problem that caused our deficits to explode. Certainly now is not the time to raise taxes on middle and lower income people, but those who can afford to pay more in taxes certainly should, particularly when richer Americans historically have paid much higher tax rates and still maintained a great standard of living.

Perhaps to achieve fiscal solvency it will be necessary to extend retirement ages or cut benefits in social programs like Medicare and Medicaid. These cuts become much more likely though in a hampered economy. I know my lifestyle would take a severe hit if I lived on half my income. The same is true with our government. A thriving economy will be the engine that creates this wealth again, as it did under Bill Clinton.

We need to spend more to get this economy moving again, even if the debt numbers look scary in the short term. Just as importantly, we need to spend wisely, investing on essentials like education, our state and local governments, and our infrastructure. Doing so prepares us for the economic challenges of the 21st century. To narrow the deficit, we need to repeal tax cuts given to the rich. At the very least, we need to redirect wasted money from places like Afghanistan into useful activities, like maintaining basic services for our citizens. What we do not need is what we have now: a panicky and foolish Congress that cannot see that their version of austerity is just another word for continued recession, unemployment and our quick descent into a second world country.

Community college is not quite college

As long time readers know, I teach off and on at a community college. More specifically, I teach off and on at Northern Virginia Community College, one of the nations largest community colleges. I taught a Computer Fundamentals course in the spring semester, took the summer off, and am back teaching the same course for the fall semester.

Community colleges serve some valuable purposes. Primarily, they help bridge high schoolers that never quite excelled in high school with the college education most need these days to succeed in life. This is a sizeable crowd, more so these days than most due to the severe economic recessions. NVCC like many community colleges is bursting at its seams. Enrollment is up over ten percent from last year. We have classes that start at 6:30 a.m. We are occupying space in excess office buildings because the campuses are not big enough. This is good as otherwise many of these students would not be able to take a class at all, or would need to extend their education.

In addition to those who never soared in high school, NVCC serves other groups that are arguably marginalized and disenfranchised, but should not be. We get many ESOL (English as a Second Language) students, people just auditing courses, senior citizens with too much time on their hands and a fair number of students who attend community college because apparently they cannot think of anything better to do.

After nine years of off-and-on teaching, one thing I can say for sure: community college is not “real” college. At least, it is not the college experience I knew attending a four-year institution some thirty plus years back and this has me worried. Many of the courses that are taught, while necessarily from a business purpose, are of dubious academic worth. I can use the Computer Fundamentals class that I teach as an example. About a third of the class imparts what I consider to be real knowledge: the basics of computer science. Most of the class is really about learning the Microsoft Office Suite: Word, Powerpoint, Excel and Access.

Granted the Microsoft Office suite is ubiquitous, whether you work in business, government or academia. Microsoft Word is the typewriter grown up. Microsoft Excel is a fancy tool for analyzing data. Microsoft Access is a desktop database. Still, in my opinion anyone going to college should be able to master any of these applications on their own. If Microsoft Office should be taught at all in college, it should be as an elective. These applications are not that hard to learn. Each comes with tutorials you can take at your leisure to learn basic and more advanced features. The expectation should be that if you are in college, you have already acquired enough intelligence and curiosity to independently learn and use these desktop applications as need dictates.

The fact that most of my students are baffled with these applications (even while they use them regularly) tells me that community college is essentially high school extended. Perhaps I paint with too broad a brush. Not all community college courses are like this one, but many if not most seem to be. Moreover, perhaps because instructors recognize they are often working with academically challenged students, they may tailor their courses to the lowest common denominator. This seems to be manifested in the low volume of homework and exams that are dumbed down.

As a college freshman, I suffered through many courses I did not particularly like. Some were more challenging than others, but none of them were dumbed down. As a full-time student, generally taking four to five classes a semester, between classes, studying and group projects I remember typically putting in ten to fourteen hour days six to seven days a week. I remember craving lots more free time than I actually had. For the most part, I had no time for extracurricular activities like dating and drinking.

I doubt that is true of most of the full-time students that I teach. My daughter, age 20, also happens to be attending NVCC. I suspect she has a lot of natural intelligence, but she rarely needs to study for any of her classes. Mostly when she gets home from classes she has volumes of free time, much of which is spent playing World of Warcraft. Her friends who are attending four-year colleges have a much different experience. From the feedback I get from her, they are working their fannies off, just like I did. In short, they are being academically challenged. I doubt this is true for most of my students.

In our modern age, we need community college to bridge the gap between high school and real academia. I just wish that community colleges would be upfront and acknowledge that for the most part community colleges are college-lite. If NVCC is typical of most community colleges, it is perhaps thirty percent of the academic experience that they would receive at a four-year university.

Community colleges do serve a number of vital purposes. As a place to acquire new job skills rather cheaply and without traveling far, they are vital. As a place to learn business skills, they excel. As an example of egalitarianism at its finest, they do a great job. The barrier to entry is low. While it depends on the course and the instructor, most courses do not qualify as a proper academic experience. They tend to convey much more of the how to rather than the why. Few require much critical thinking.

I try hard to set a higher standard, but it is difficult. First, the material is not particularly challenging to master, although my students, who often skimp on studying, might disagree. I assign term papers and set what I hope are high standards for research. Despite howls from my students, most of my exams are not multiple choice, but require them to express in their own words some key concept. I used to provide the notes I lectured with and Powerpoint slides, but when it became apparent they could not even be bothered to study from these, I stopped. Moreover, I was contributing to the problem. To really master the material, they need to take their own notes and learn from them. I even provided advice on how to study at the start of the semester, which apparently many never picked up in high school. Some students in every class will excel, and I will do my best to make the material more interesting, although it is pretty dry. Most seem to prefer mediocrity to exceptionalism.

While I can try to raise the bar in my own class, clearly the bar needs to be raised overall in community colleges. Instructors need to set higher standards. We do students no favors if the majority of them graduate with Gentleman C’s, or B’s that are really C’s. These students, like it or not, will be leading our great nation someday. Unless we academics set higher standards, America of the 21st century is likely to be a place where the mediocre, rather than the exceptional, are running the country. In other words, we will be a nation in decline.

Here is my advice to today’s high schoolers. If you can afford it, attend a four-year university. I suspect that overall you will have a much better academic experience. You should not be able to skate your way to a four-year degree, and if you can, I would lower the credentials of the college giving you the degree. You need to master every course that you take to succeed. Never settle for mediocrity, or you may think that is the way America works, because it is not, at least not yet. Always set a high standard for yourself. If instructors like me are not giving you the academic experience you imagine, raise holy hell. You deserve the best that I can give you.

Bless her father for she has sinned

Way back in the 1960s and early 1970s, Sister Monica was principle and eighth grade teacher at my parochial elementary school in upstate New York. When I first knew her, she almost looked like a Talibani woman. Like all the sisters, she wore ankle-length black dresses, black shoes with black hose, a belt with beads and a crucifix on one end, and a habit so severe that you could not see a hair on her head other than on her eyebrows. After Vatican II, they literally had a change of habit, which got considerably smaller to the point where we could make out actual hair. Today, even modest habits are history. I doubt there is any way I could tell a Sister of St. Joseph from any other woman on the street.

Sister Monica had to deal with two hundred or so of us pupils who suffered from the sin of being, well, children. Yes, amazingly we had not mastered adult skills such as not squirming in our seats or talking in class. Sister Monica would permit none of these childish things. From our uniforms (pressed black pants, white shirts and a green tie for the boys, and really ugly plaid green dresses with a white blouse for the girls), the idea was to extinguish all signs of difference. Sitting in our squat and tiny desks, we looked like budding Catholic Dilberts destined to spend our lives in cubicles, which way back then had not yet been invented. Sister Monica took it as her personal mission to obliterate all signs of personality from us. She had two hundred plus students to deal with, dammit (not that she would swear). We were but sausages in her grinder. She had to turn us into good little Catholic sausages, educated but obedient. We were destined to be interchangeable gears for the betterment of society but far more importantly, good, dutiful and faithful Catholics. We were to be the type who went to mass every Sunday and never miss a Holy Day of Obligation.

In short, in Sister Monica’s universe there was virtually no room for either tolerance or deviation. Absolute conformity and obedience were required. Silence was required during class. If you had a question, of course, you first had to raise your hand and be allowed to speak. Being children, we tended to tune out a lot of her teaching. We fidgeted. We spent inordinate amounts of time sneaking peaks out the window, doodling, watching the clock and waiting for the liberation of recess or the final bell. If our attention ever wavered, she would call out to us in her sharp raspy voice. Her long, wooden pointer with its rubber tip was her constant companion. She would smack it down loudly on your desk to get your attention. We were there to learn and generally, that meant a lot of lecture, rote memorization and few questions.

It is hard for me to give Sister Monica her due, but I will try. In fact, she was a pretty good teacher in that it was hard to leave her class without having learned the material. I remember her primarily as my math teacher. By the end of the eighth grade, we were already doing algebra. Homework certainly was turned in on time and was promptly graded. Since she was so vigilant about students looking out the window most of us realized we had best pay attention. Moreover, Sister Monica liked having an audience. Her pointy stick was one way that she expressed her personality since with all that black garb on, there wasn’t much else of her to see.

Back in the 1960s, and in particular, in parochial schools, someone like Sister Monica had near absolute and unchecked authority. The only liberal aspect of Sister Monica that I can recall was that she was liberal at meting out punishment. I am sure a class full of elementary school children could be a handful. It was not natural for us to stifle ourselves or give the teacher our full attention.

A teacher certainly has the right to maintain order in the class. Sister Monica though was a big believer in spare the rod and spoil the child, and it was hard to find any infraction too trivial for her justice. Her preferred instruments for meting out punishment were two yardsticks held together. Her preferred location for executing sentence was her desk at the front of the class. Her instructions were simple: “Form a right angle.” There in front of the class the recalcitrant student (in my memory, always a boy) would receive a dozen or so sharp whacks with her doubled yardstick, sometime but not always inducing tears, but often involving a lot of wincing. If it was painful to endure it was perhaps more painful to repeatedly witness. Publicly meting out punishment also had a deterrent effect. I cannot recall ever being at the end of her yardstick. Yet for every student who endured her yardsticks, it was as if I could feel their pain. It made me angry but of course there was no way to express it. My own mother was much like Sister Monica, so I would find no sympathy at home.

Many of us got worse than Sister Monica at home. This was an age when, if your father beat your bums and back black and blue with his belt, child welfare workers (to the extent they existed) would generally look the other way; he was your father, after all, and society assumed he knew best. Perhaps some of the frequent victims of her yardstick grew inured, since many of them were repeat offenders. Yelling in the halls or in class, repeatedly looking out the window and arriving in class sweaty from running around too much during recess were typical violations that required swift justice.

As a child, I found her behavior hard to reconcile. While it was consistent with what I saw outside of the school, it seemed cruel and vindictive. Yet, the faith I was given told me we should look at clerics like Sister Monica with respect, if not something bordering on adoration. By contemporary standards, she would be fired on the first incident with the yardstick. Today, civil suits seeking damages for physical and emotional abuse might even succeed. Once in high school, when our bus rolled past our elementary school I found that I had to deliberately look away. It was thirty years before I found both the time the courage to examine my old haunt of a school. A haunt it remains to me, although the school has long been vacant.

As for Sister Monica, I assumed she had gone to her reward, or was close to going there. I did not think she was web savvy. I did not think I could find her, but last week filled with mild curiosity I left an inquiry on her order’s website. To my surprise, they provided me with Sister Monica’s email address! She is still affiliated with her order but is now semi-retired. I inferred her last name from her email address and Googled her. Google pointed me to a fairly recent online article where she is featured. There in glorious color on the World Wide Web was the now habit-less Sister Monica, much aged of course, heavier, but with much the feisty look that I recalled.

From reading about her online, I got the feeling she has mellowed quite a bit. She held the job of principal in a number of other parochial schools, helped developed curriculum for her diocese, and was involved in at least some charitable work running a food donation center. There are likely many layers to Sister Monica and perhaps I saw her least Christ-like layer.

Although I do not plan to email her, I do fantasize from time to time on what I might say to her. I would ask if she felt bad about the way she treated us. My suspicion is that she would say no. I would suggest to her that she should repent by asking forgiveness from those she hurt, including me. She would probably say these sorts of sins, if they occurred at all, are easily absolved in the Sacrament of Confession. I would reply that there are two types of forgiveness. God can forgive some sins but those against other people can only be forgiven by those who were hurt. If she were to ask my forgiveness, I would grant it. It might heal her soul, presuming it is troubled, which I doubt. Moreover, it may help me put these sad past events forever under the mattress.

Unquestionably, they affected me profoundly as a child and still somewhat as an adult. She likely affected hundreds of other students of hers over the years, and most I suspect have few charitable memories. I am no longer a Catholic for many reasons, but in part because I could not as an adult be a member of a religion that would look the other way while people like her abused so many children. I worked hard to be firm but tolerant parent, never raising a hand to my daughter and trying, but not always exceeding, to never to throw a deprecating remark her way.

Today virtually all schools, except in a few Southern states, are free of faculty-induced violence. This is particularly true of parochial schools, although in numbers they are today a small fraction of what they were in their heyday. This may be in part because Sister Monica was one of many sisters, as unfortunately there were many Catholic priests, who crossed the lines. I doubt her behavior gave her any qualms. She was probably instructed by her clerics to mete out corporal punishment. She may have witnessed it herself had she spent her childhood in parochial schools. It may have seen as natural as eating and breathing.

In the grand scheme of things, these sins were probably of the venial variety. No one died. Many bottoms may have gotten a bit red, but only temporarily. Sister Monica might have induced a blister or two, but she also succeeded in making us learn. As best I can tell none of my classmates grew up to be axe murderers. Still with me, my friend Tom who was also there and I am sure many others, she did leave scars, scars that do not always completely heal even so many decades later.

I imagine someday the pendulum will swing back and teachers may be empowered to mete out punishment again. I can only hope that if this happens, future parochial school teachers will retain nonviolent ways to discipline their pupils. Given the certainty of Catholicism about so many things, I am not entirely convinced those days are gone forever. Absolute power allows these transgressions to occur, and at the very least in Sister Monica’s case, the Catholic Church watched askance.