Sunday, February 27, 2011


In my blog posting of January 29th, 2011, we discussed the quantum leap from campaign rhetoric about shrinking government and reducing deficits and debts to actually legislating such seismic changes. Especially with reductions of the scale promised by incoming conservatives from the 2010 election. Since that blog was posted, we have seen some of the opening salvos of the federal, state and local budget battles to come, previews of the economic and political gyrations that will likely dominate this year’s national discussions.

While the federal government thus far dithers and grandstands and maneuvers, the real battles have emerged in the states. Unlike the federal budget, deficits are not allowed there. A small number of states are in good shape for their next fiscal year; many are facing colossal shortfalls. The short-term answer in ½-dozen states? Blame the problem, and find the solution, on “state workers.” Starting with Wisconsin and moving to other (mainly mid-Western rust belt) states, reducing wages and/or benefits, raising benefit premiums, limiting/eliminating union bargaining rights regarding employment aspects, has become a magic bullet solution for these states. In terms of political agenda and values, it is a Republican’s dream issue come true, and a Democrat’s worse nightmare.

Truth be told, there are in fact changes that need to be made in government employment and are well overdue. Sadly, those specific surgical changes needed are likely to be overwhelmed and lost in the rush of an attempted meat-cleaver dismantling of public service. “We’re broke” will be used as a blanket excuse to fulfill long-frustrated political agendas, just as “creating jobs” will be used as an excuse for trying to eliminate every government regulatory agency and rule in sight, regardless of net value to the citizenry.

Unfortunately, in many instances government employees, teachers and their unions have brought a certain measure of this havoc upon themselves. There are large numbers of employees engaged in providing services to the people that are appropriate for our federal/state/local governments. Many do so with high personal and ethical standards, genuine concern about the mission and clients they serve, and professionalism in their manner of performance and resulting output. There are many educators, from kindergarten through college, who intensively believe in the value of the knowledge they teach and the human potential that exists in their students, potential just waiting to be tapped into and released. These workers slog on against micromanagement, inadequate facilities and resources, lack of public understanding of what they do and how they have to do it, and the arcane rules and process they have to work within in order to do their jobs. These are all people who deserve far better than they have been given.

But there are also far too many employees whose dedication is only to themselves. Whose creativity has long burned out, whose interest for the concerns of citizens has disappeared, whose job performance is unacceptable by any standard of measure, or whose job conduct is unethical at best if not illegal. The only apparent skill set they now have is knowing well how to beat or milk “the system.” The rules, union contracts, human resource policies and procedures, combined with unqualified supervisors unwilling (or un-allowed) to take on bad performers, all conspire to keep under-performers firmly in place and grossly overpaid.

These are the public employees that taxpayers often see, very visible on the front lines of taxpayer contact. It is the bureaucrat behind the counter who does not have answers and could care less about your problems or the time demands on you. It is the school teacher who cannot teach and cares little about your child’s needs. It is the college professor who is more interested in his/her research and pet projects than teaching or properly advising his/her students – in spite of continually rising tuition charges. Behind them may be untrained toxic-supervisors stifling or driving out good performers while keeping their lesser cronies. The public does not often see the flat wages, hiring freezes, broken or insufficient equipment, unpaid overtime, and a constant demand to “do more with less” environment that many dedicated employees work within. They all too frequently instead see this worst-of-the-bunch who are held unaccountable for their incompetency and unethical conduct. It is not a question of rank; it is a protected incompetency that can extend from the custodian to the professional to the department head to the college president. It is a special protection, a cocoon, that the average taxpayer does not have available, and this have/have-not is disturbing when your home ownership is threatened.

As long as public employees and their unions continue to countenance this unaccountability of their peers, and continue to clean up after them and do their work, the vast innocents will be tarnished and likewise buried under this growing taxpayer revolt. Yes, taxpayers will scream once again when teachers get laid off for budget reasons and classroom sizes swell; they will protest reductions in staffing for police and fire safety; they will be frustrated by reduced office hours in government offices or the reduced services available to them. These are all the standard tricks of the protest techniques polished by years of union reaction strategies. But this time people may well endure these complaints if they feel that they are not getting value for their tax dollars, or that they are being asked to save jobs for people who do not deserve to be saved. Because when you feel no one is looking out to help save your job, or assist you in your financial need, or has some special rules available to them, it is harder to be charitable to someone who you feel is not a job worth saving.

How this will play out is hard to predict. But responsible educators and public employees would be well advised to get in front of reform after long years of being the unyielding wall against any change, or being silent about in-bred incompetencies. The old fear arguments may no longer work today. Some people may be willing to have their child in a larger class IF it means that there is a better teacher in front of the room, and the parent with a resulting improved after-tax income can better afford to clothe, feed and shelter that child. It is time to cut loose and quit protecting those that do not deserve protection, and for all of us to give our full support to the still dedicated high-performing ones who richly deserve it. To clean your own house before others do it for you in ways you will not like. “The times they are a-changing.”

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Progress By Generations

Some days when we survey the state of our country and our personal lives, it can easily be a discouraging view. The problems are many; the solutions seem few and ineffective; progress appears stunted; our divisions run deep. The density of the trees of our problems seems to shut out the sunlight through the forest that can guide us to a new place of being. The issues in front of us often seem to be the same recurring issues mankind has faced for millennia. In the reality of billions of people in this world, the possibility of my individual self making much of a real difference in the state of things feels pretty minimal.

When I get those feelings of discouragement, if not pessimism, it seems helpful to retreat back from a today’s perspective and look instead at a longer view of the human condition and its evolution. As it turns out, our American experience seems like a pretty good reference point of human progress.

On a comparative basis, America is still a relatively young country. We realize that when we visit Europe, Asia or the Middle East, all of whom measure time in the thousands of years. Our founding history seems like so long ago in proportion to our individual lives and experiences, and our images of our colonial times. Yet in truth we are only a little over 225 years old as an independent country. At today’s rates of life expectancy, our entire history can be encapsulated within only three successive lifetimes. My mother’s life spanned 1919-1999, essentially a scan of the 20th century after World War I. Her great grandfather from Tennessee fought for the South in the Civil War, and lived to see the dawn of the 20th century and hear about a man in flight above the earth. One lifetime before him, a son of my Revolutionary War patriot ancestor was born at the beginning of the American Republic, and grew up with it into our ultimate test of the Civil War. And now my own grandchildren are just beginning the 4th lifetime of the American Story. How much will we have seen through the course of our lifetime!

If we go a step further and break down our story over the twelve 20-year generations of our experience, it surprises me how neatly our historical story can be boxed up in that increment. It is as if God perfectly gives each generation its shot to make its mark, advance the human condition one net step forward out of that generation’s chaos, and then pass the torch on to the next group to try once again. Each generation has its major failing, but it is balanced by its major accomplishment. So what does our “story by the generations” look like?

1763-1788: The end of the French-Indian war, resulting in heavy taxes on America, which led to the American Revolution and the confederation of American States. The American was opportunity created.
1788-1808: U.S. Constitution and the federal system – radical new experiment in government. BUT: citizenship and voting rights limited by race, gender, age and religion – white property-owning males (the elite), only @10-16% of the population. Founding Fathers of Washington, Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson et al.
1809-1828: 2nd (and last) generation of Founding Fathers: Madison, Monroe, Quincy Adams. War of 1812. American government stabilized, lasting precedents established. Last religious citizenship restriction eliminated.
1829-1848: Leadership passed from Founding Fathers to era of “the common man.” Property ownership citizenship restriction eliminated. First American war of expansion, with Mexico. Westward expansion; Indian relocation. Jackson and a new “western / frontier” breed of presidents.
1849-1876: Slavery, Secession, and Reconstruction. Union affirmed; slavery ended. Race citizenship restriction eliminated. Lincoln, Grant presidencies.
1877-1900: Big business and mega-wealth: era of the super-rich – Carnegie, Rockefeller, J.P Morgan, Vanderbilts; creation of economic elite. Rise of trade unionism and violent strikes against management. Cycles of booms and depressions. Successive un-noteworthy presidents.
1901-1920: International engagement and World War I; Invention and entrepreneurs – Edison, Ford, entertainment industry (radio, movies, records). Gender citizenship restriction eliminated; direct election of U.S. senators by voters. Anti-trust legislation/breakup of monopolies. Child labor laws. Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson presidencies.
1921-1940: Economic boom (Harding/Coolidge/Hoover) followed by bust – Great Depression (Franklin Roosevelt). Liberalism, social programs, federal government expansion; institution of “social safety net” for disadvantaged. Financial regulation laws/agencies enacted. Jazz → Swing eras. Silent Charlie Chaplain → Bob Hope radio; “The Birth of a Nation” → “Wizard of Oz.”
1941-1960: “Greatest Generation.” World War II; begin 65 years of peace in Western Europe. International leadership/superpower; ideological war with USSR. Korean War. Domestic calm, growth of new “middle class.” Sinatra → Elvis. African-American integration of schools and military. Eisenhower.
1961-1980: Upheaval, unrest, loss of institutional trust. Assassinations, Viet Nam, street demonstrations, rioting in cities. Youth versus parents. Civil rights and women’s movement push anti–discrimination in fact, not just in law. Medicare instituted. American on moon. Beatles; Peter/Paul/Mary. Kennedy/Johnson; Nixon-1st resignation of a president.
1980-2000: Retrenchment: liberalism → political center. Middle-class recoil from social change, growth of “conservative right.” Begin economic deregulation. Fall of USSR; freedom to Eastern Europe. Internet/instant global communication. Reagan, Bush, Clinton presidencies.
2000-2020: ?????

Each generation has suffered its share of trials of war, economic hardships, and social disruption. But each generation has made some progress in our economic well-being, mutual relationships, social justice and our equal rights of citizenship. What will history say about this current generation of our story, the story that began in 2000?

The past has led us to today; our present will lead us to tomorrow. Where is our tomorrow going? What do we want it to look like? The momentous events we have watched unfold in Egypt over these past weeks call upon us to ask ourselves – What will we choose to do or say today that will cause the creation of that tomorrow?

“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can still do some things. Just because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.” (Edward Everett Hale, UUC minister)