Sunday, March 30, 2014

March 31 Is Only The Beginning

I suppose it would have been fitting if the Obama Administration had scheduled April Fool's Day as the last day to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. We've certainly been treated to a smorgasbord of ineptitude, shifting deadlines, executive pronouncements that let certain economic sectors off the hook, and some rude, disrespectful, sometimes hateful objections from the right wing about the entire business.

That's why March 31 is so important. It represents the end of the first, and possibly most vital, stage of the implementation of the act. Millions of people have signed up for heath insurance. Millions of others are now covered by Medicaid. The federal and state websites are still balky, but they work. The end of the beginning is upon us. It can only get better from here. And the best part is that the law is working.

Republicans have dropped their demand that the law be scrapped, which six months ago looked like a possibility as they shut down the government and showed exactly what can go wrong when the government attempts to shortchange the software cycle. Now the arguments are that the law needs to be fixed, although GOP candidates are running against it to the exclusion of everything else, except perhaps voter ID laws that will guarantee a Republican majority in the House for the foreseeable future. Even Democrats in tossup races in Louisiana and North Carolina are talking about fixing the law so it doesn't ensnare the middle class and endanger employer-provided health insurance.

The problem is that, over time, that's exactly what the law will accomplish. We are moving into uncharted waters, where the employer mandate will shift and companies will start to drop health insurance from their benefit plans. How this will work is the key. Will companies give employees a voucher with a dollar amount attached to it to buy insurance? Will they raise wages so people can pay for their own policies? Will insurance companies bring down the cost of policies so they can remain viable? Will we eventually get a public option that takes private insurance out of the economy? These are the questions that will define how successfully the ACA reforms the health care industry. Follow the money. That's always been the gold standard of social change.

My sense is that employer-sponsored health insurance will be gone from most industries within 7-10 years, and the fallout won't be as bad as some have predicted. Companies have a vital interest in the health of their workers and insurance companies won't want to price people out of plans. Without the major expense of providing health insurance, companies will be able to pay workers more, though not too much more. The minimum wage will be less of a burden as it rises. Workers will need to make healthier choices and get checked more often before health issues become major concerns. The GOP calls this personal responsibility, and they accuse the Democrats of coddling the country with social programs. The ACA will do more for people taking control of their health than anything we've done in the United States. Remembers, the ACA is based on Republican ideas. That's why the law is both a curse and a blessing.

All of that is in the future. For now, President Obama's approval numbers are in the tank. History will remember him far more positively.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Christie's Broken Record

So far, the political discussion revolving around Chris Christie's diminishing prospects for 2016 have centered on the George Washington Bridge scandal, (and the laughable investigation by his own attorney), and the not-yet-vetted story about Sandy aid being withheld from less-than-enthusiastic supporters of the governor. These are certainly key issues that tell us a great deal about Christie's style and demeanor, but even without them, he simply doesn't have a record that would support a national run.

There's no New Jersey Miracle, no New Jersey Rebound, and no New Jersey Bounce (OK, there's one of those, but it's unrelated to economics and politics). The governor hasn't led New Jersey into a new ideological paradigm, nor has he provided a new framework by which the state operates. Democrats still outnumber Republicans. His 2013 coattails were, shall we say, a bit short when it came to counting legislative seats. His Supreme Court nominees have been rebuffed.

And this guy wants to be president?

About all he can run on is a state worker's pension and benefits bill that is providing little relief to anyone. Middle class public workers are being whacked because more money is coming out of their checks for pensions and health insurance (which should have been negotiated, not imposed), and property taxes remain stubbornly high (remember that these taxes were supposed to go down as a result of the pensions bill). The result is that the governor took spendable money out of the economy at a time when he should have been putting more money into the economy to create jobs. What we have in  New Jersey now is slow growth, a deteriorating middle class and a governor who wants to have public workers pay even more into their pensions. What about millionaires, you ask? He won't touch their taxes.

Funny side note: Christie is seen as a moderate Republican. You can stop laughing now.

Christie's latest economic gambit is to renege on his mandated duty to make full payments to the public worker pension system. That would put it in serious jeopardy and would negate a promise that the courts have ruled to be essentially non-negotiable. He'll lose this argument and more credibility because the Democrats in the legislature will not cave in to him as they did in 2011 and the crossover vote that earned him his victory in November is abandoning him. Conservative Republicans in NJ still back him, but that's not nearly a majority of the voters.

My sense is that the governor will survive the scandals. The larger question is whether New Jersey can survive him.

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Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Pause

Perhaps it's just me, but this time of year seems to be the boring period between the fun of a nasty winter and the beginning of a well-earned spring. And I'm not just talking about the weather. American politics is on hiatus at this moment because it's too early to get too riled up by the prospect of electing another do-nothing Congress, and since the one we have now is essentially done for the year, what else is there to talk about? The Affordable Care Act? Boring. Marriage equality? Done. The lost Malaysian plane? Probably found and the story will make a great movie one summer. Ukraine? Potentially deadly and maybe the foremost threat to world peace presently in the news.

This is not to say that these stories are not important because they are, but there doesn't seem to be any movement or progress or yes-we-canism alive at the moment. The Republicans are still trying to figure out what it believes in and how it can appeal to groups that have shunned its message so far. The House will most likely remain in their hands, which guarantees us another two years of bills that will not become law until a GOP president is elected (shudder). And the Senate will probably also go red, but I've already treated that scenario.

I am not, though, down in the dumps. The Supreme Court is hearing arguments about whether religious companies can stop providing certain forms of birth control the ACA requires because it would be a violation of their religious rights. I'm thinking that Justice Roberts is aching to get back on the conservative horse he dismounted two years ago in the health care law case, but Justice Kennedy might be the wild card in this one. It is certain that Justice Scalia will lament the end of the republic if he's on the losing side.

And the health care law will survive because about six million people will have signed up for insurance through the exchanges or Medicaid and throwing them off the rolls is just too mean for even today's Republican Party. The law needs fixing and that's where the focus is going to be in 2014 and 2016 and 2018 as companies and states decide that insurance is too expensive and want employees to sign up for the policies on the website. This will be revolutionary and the effect will be profound. I'm not surprised that neither party is really talking about this out loud, but it's almost certain to come to pass sometime within the next five years.

As for Vlad the Invader, I'm not ruling out a bit of shooting in Ukraine or areas local to it. It will depend on whether he heeds the economic warnings his aides are no doubt giving him. My sense is that Putin will ask for something big in return, negotiate, and take something smaller that gives him a say in Ukraine, but not the whole country. In the end, Ukraine will make a deal with the EU, but will always need to watch its eastern back.

All of this is in the future, and you can feel free to pay attention to it since you're obviously not winning $1 billion dollars on March Madness because nobody has a perfect bracket left. The best we can hope for is common sense and pride in a job well done. Some things never change.

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Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Party's Been Over

I think I'm just going to assume that the Democrats will lose the Senate in November and prepare myself as I would for any frustrating event I've endured over the past few years. That way, if they do eke out a win or tie, then it will be that much sweeter.

There's been no shortage of discussion about the ramification of a GOP takeover of the Senate, but not much would really change, save for the fact that no judges or executive appointments would be ratified. The Congress would pass some bills that President Obama would veto, and the country would be treated to an intramural fight as the far more conservative House would pass more extreme bills that the less extreme Senate would either ignore or try to temper so that they're palatable to the larger caucus. In short, how would this term be different from all other terms, save for Obama's first two years in office?

Which makes former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs' comment that a Democratic loss would mean that "The party's over" seem rather quaint. The party's been over and it doesn't look like it's coming back anytime soon. Even if the Republicans take the Senate, they will most likely lose it back to the Democrats in 2016, because the GOP will have to defend a whopping 27 seats and convince the young, the Hispanic and the African-American that they have their best interests at heart. And they'll have to win the presidency, which at this point doesn't look like it will ever happen.

The GOP seems to think that young people are in play because they aren't signing up for health insurance at the rate that the ACA needs in order to function, but recent surveys show that the millennials aren't attached to either political party, and less so to the Republicans. It is true that many people become more conservative as they gather life experiences such as marriages, children and mortgages, but let's remember that on social issues, the younger generation is far removed from the right wing scolds who want to decide who gets rights and who doesn't. And we've also seen the effects of less government involvement in, say, North Carolina, that should scare people away from a more libertarian direction.

It hasn't been a good year for Democrats so far, but nothing that a more robust turnout can't alter. But the party? Turn out the lights.

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Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Test, the Whole Test and Nothing But the Test

At some point, I could see teachers having to not only swear allegiance to the United States and the state in which they live, but taking an oath to uphold the testing mania that is now in full swing across the country. This would be the only legitimate way for tests to become an accepted part of the educational landscape in the form that the know-nothing reformers would like. But when you construct a system that relies on tests and ineffective evaluation measures, I suppose force is all you have to make the system work. Right Vladimir?

This past week in New Jersey, scores of teachers attended the state Board of Education meeting in Trenton with the express desire of bringing some sanity and professional judgement to the issue. Do I think this will happen? Not really, as long as the discussion begins and ends with testing and so-called objective measures of determining teacher effectiveness.

To be fair, I have been evaluated according to the Danielson rubric in my district, and my evaluations have reinforced what I, and my students over the years, have known all along; that I run my classroom according to accepted educational practice and that my students practice and learn the required academic skills. But only one-half of one of 22 components actually asks an administrator to evaluate my content area knowledge and most of the rubric focuses on what the teacher does, not what the students do. This is certainly one way to evaluate teachers, but it's not the most effective.

Now come the tests. Last week, students in 11th grade took the state's high school graduation test. In coming weeks, schools across the state will lose valuable instructional time administering elementary and middle school level tests that will eventually be used to evaluate those teachers. Then there's the pilot program for the PARCC tests, that will take more time and students out of the instructional day.

Next school year, the state's public schools will virtually shut down in March and May so that they can administer the full dosage of PARCC tests to students on computer hardware and software that must work 100% of the time during the tests. How likely is that to happen? And how likely is it that every teacher will be able to help students who push the wrong key or hit a fatal keyboard combination while legitimately trying to do their best? The tests will not be measuring teacher performance and will barely be measuring student knowledge. What they will be measuring is perseverance, survival, the district's wealth and ability to buy computers, and how many rooms the school has available for testing.

The coup de grace is that one of the architects of this fakery, Christopher Cerf, stepped down as Education Commissioner last week, but not before penning a love letter to the NJEA, accusing it of double-dealing, hypocrisy and ignorance. I've met Commissioner Cerf in a formal professional setting and I can tell you that he doesn't care a whit what the NJEA says. As long as the NJ state Board of Education supported him, that's all Cerf needed to legitimize his program. Perhaps his successor, David Hespe, will look at what's happening and actually listen to educators.

Until then, it's testing...1,2,3 for students and teachers. Productive school days will suffer as a result.

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Sunday, March 2, 2014

The World Gets Dangerous

You can't say we weren't warned that Vladimir Putin might try to flex some muscles in Ukraine. After all, the Olympics are over, there were no terrorist attacks, Russia won the most medals, and Viktor Yanukovych turned out to be better suited for the summer games, beating a hasty vamoose from Kiev all the way to Moscow. Perhaps we could have a Dictator's Marathon in Rio come 2016. I'd watch "Baby Doc" Duvalier run from shouting crowds. And you would too. After all, you watched Curling, right?

Let's move on.

The latest is that Russian security forces are now in the Crimea and are asking Ukrainian forces to defect. They're also trying to neutralize and reverse the events of last week when crowds in Kiev forced the President from his post. Putin is being painted as the bad guy here, but the West has a problem on its hand that is similar to what happened in Egypt last year. A democratically elected government has been overthrown in a decidedly non-democratic manner, but since the people who have taken over are seen as a better alternative, the western powers are accepting the change. This is dangerous.

Of course, Yanukovych made this problem worse by leaving. Had he stayed and honored the agreement he made with the opposition, then the system would not be under such strain. And I suppose he could be invited to come back as part of a Putin-sponsored deal that restores the legitimately elected government and keeps Yulia Tymoshenko out of jail. I don't expect this, but I didn't expect the Crimea to become a world headline and another part of the world that most Americans can't find on a map.

President Obama and John Kerry will need to finesse this so that we don't look weak, but that we also don't get involved in a shooting war. I trust that they'll hold off the Republicans who want us to refight the Cold War with hot weapons and show Vlad the Invader what a real country does with its taxpayer-bought arsenal.

Maybe we can use Governor Christie's expertise and cause a traffic jam that bottles up the Russian forces until we can get the UN to negotiate an exit.

This one bears watching, and is a reminder that we need to be thankful that we have a level-headed team in the White House to see us through.

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