May 30, 2005
Association of ombudspeople smacks down Tomlinson
The NYT reports that the Organization of News Ombudsmen (everybody has an organization these days!), or ONO, has refused to admit the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's team of one "liberal" and one "conservative" ombudsman to full membership. The Corporation's chairman, Kenneth Tomlinson, has been on something of a mission to combat the supposed liberal bias of the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio, and part of his strategy is to name these two "ombudsmen" at the Corporation (not itself a news-gathering organization) to monitor whether PBS and NPR are slanting their coverage. A curious use of the term "ombudsman," to be sure - the usual meaning of a news ombudsman is someone who represents, and responds to, the readers, listeners, or viewers of a news outlet, not the hack who happens to be serving as one of the news outlet's major funders.
ONO, apparently of the view that the Corporation's two ombudsguys weren't really "ombudsmen," wouldn't let them in. One must add, however, that the person behind this action appears to have been Jeffrey Dvorkin, the ombudsman for - you guessed it - NPR. Oops. Of course, we're certain that the decision to bar the Corporation's ombudsfolks from full membership in ONO was entirely on the merits.
The ball is now in Tomlinson's court. Let's see how hard he decides to smack it!
Bubble bubble toil and trouble: Babies R not us
Specifically, [demographer Peter Francese] doesn't see enough young people in our future -- especially young adults with children. We drive them away, said Francese, with our high housing prices, which are high, in part, because we refuse to build affordable housing suitable for young families. ''Our wounds are self-inflicted," he said.
... New England home prices go up, but relatively little new housing gets built to satisfy the demand. Francese puts the blame for that lack of production squarely on the shoulders of a cherished New England institution -- the fiercely independent town.
Towns don't want to build houses because houses contain children who will have to go to school, which will cost taxpayers in the town money. ''The last thing anyone wants is school kids," said Francese.
That last one hurts, doesn't it? If your town doesn't want to build your kid's family a house, and is stingy with your grandkids' education, why would your kids come back to raise them near you?
This may sound rather laissez-faire for a dyed-in-the-wool lib, but I really think we've got to revisit some zoning laws regarding affordable housing development, both the official state kind, and the market-driven kind. It's not surprising that people want to protect and preserve what they've got, including high property values, but there's a really heavy price being paid right now.
(Update: For a more expansive take on taxes, politics, real estate, and the effect on quality of life, see .08.)
May 29, 2005
Rep. Lynch is thinking about it ...
The Globe reports that US Rep. Stephen Lynch is kinda sorta thinking about running for Governor, maybe.
Lynch would be the most conservative Dem in the field. I can respectfully disagree with his anti-choice views, but his vote in favor of the Terri Schiavo bill pretty much rules him out for me. Anyone who thought the federal government belonged in that situation has a very different understanding of the role of government than I do.
More on the Wellesley override
As we noted earlier this week, the town of Wellesley's recent failure (by 17 votes) to pass a $3.6 million Proposition 2-1/2 override resulted in the cancellation of a Spanish immersion program in the Wellesley public schools (the town did pass a smaller override), whereupon some concerned parents took it upon themselves to raise $380,000 to try to save the program. The school board, however, rejected the offer, and will cancel the program instead. We wondered aloud whether this was the right call, and got some interesting comments.
In today's Globe, columnist Eileen McNamara continues the discussion by delivering a lecture to the Wellesley parents, who in her view are "confused" about "the definition of public education" and require a lesson on "the concept of collective responsibility."
I was mightily put off by McNamara's pious, high-and-mighty tone, which seems to me completely inappropriate in a situation where the parents (and the kids, who were also involved in the fundraising effort) were simply trying to preserve an educational program that they found to be beneficial. And, in thinking about it, I don't find much of what McNamara says to be very persuasive. Read on...
I can see two broad categories of reasons in support of the school board's decision to reject the privately-raised funds. The "strategic" reasons are the variants on the notion that "if we accept private funds here, the town will never vote for a Prop. 2-1/2 override again because they'll assume that the parents will raise the money." The "philosophical" reasons go more to the idea that there's something intrinsically bad about public schools accepting private donations.
McNamara's column does not address the "strategic" reasons at all, so I won't discuss them further here (though they're important and are well worth discussing). She focuses entirely on "philosophical" reasons - in particular, her view seems to be that when the voters spoke by rejecting the override, that should have been the end of the matter. She writes:
We cast our lot together, for good or ill. The majority rules. That means: Win some, lose some.
The take-away lesson for disappointed parents might have been the need to do a better job next time convincing townspeople of their point of view, or to do a more aggressive job of getting like-minded residents to the polls. Persuasion and participation usually win the day. Whatever happened to losing gracefully, and living to fight another day? Instead, parents indignant that they lost such a close vote launched a fund-raising drive to use private resources to pay for a core curriculum public-school program.
And still later:
In the face of the fundamental inequity in educational opportunity we do not need Citizens to Save Spanish, parents determined to circumvent the will of a majority when they do not prevail at the polls. No matter how committed they are, no matter how worthy their goal, these parents are sending a message that their cause is more legitimate than the democratic process.
"Majority rules"? "Losing gracefully"? "Circumvent the will of the majority"? "Sending a message that their cause is more legitimate than the democratic process"?? McNamara's entire column is devoted to demolishing a straw-man (a classic technique of misdirection familiar to any litigator). What the "democratic process" in Wellesley decided was that the town's property taxes would not be raised in order to fund the Spanish immersion program. No one is trying to "circumvent" that result by forcing people to pay for the Spanish program. The thing about taxes is that they are involuntary - everyone has to pay them, even if they don't like what they are being used for. The people who raised the $380,000 were voluntary donors - they didn't want the program to be cancelled, so they shelled out their own money to try to save it. McNamara's entire argument thus depends on the premise that it is "wrong" for public schools to be funded through anything other than tax money. But she never defends (or even acknowledges) that premise, and it is not clear to me that it is entirely correct, at least in circumstances like these, for the reasons in my previous post.
McNamara remarks on the fact that our state's system of locally-funded schools means that some towns have much better schools than others. While that is true, it seems to me as irrelevant as the "majority rules" point that underlies most of her column. Again, the question is whether public schools should accept private funds. Would her conclusion be different if precisely the same set of facts had arisen in Everett instead of Wellesley? The one thing I agree with in McNamara's column is this: "All parents want the best education for their children." I still haven't been persuaded that parents in a town that rejects a Prop. 2-1/2 override should be barred from replacing those funds with voluntary, private donations in order to keep the quality of the schools from declining.
May 28, 2005
"We've got to do this!"
So here's the long-awaited GBIO action recap. (I'm getting up at 4am tomorrow for a flight, so I won't be revising -- sorry for the typos and syntax.)
I arrived a little later than I wanted to, about 6:40. Temple Israel was already swarming with people -- a very positive vibe, sort of an organized chaos. There were check-in tables, a table for press, a table for the post-action collection for Darfur, you name it, and traffic bubbled merrily into the sanctuary, which, I'm told, 40 years earlier hosted one Martin Luther King Jr. Later one of the speakers remarked on the similar atmosphere last night.
A GBIO "action" is not merely a rally, where people get pepped up and then go home. Something actually happens, a moment of mutual recognition between people in power (in this case the elected representatives who were invited) and those who represented their congregations. And there is also a commitment made by the congregants there: In this case, GBIO committed itself to getting 40,000 of the 65,000+ signatures necessary to put the Health Care Access and Affordability Act on the ballot in 2006.
To give you an idea of the tone of GBIO, the introductory music was by the Temple Salem Praise Team, from a Seventh-Day Adventist Church. In his opening remarks, Rabbi Jonah Pesner said, "Someone came up to me and said, 'Rabbi, they're singing about Jesus.' I said, 'Yes, that's because they're Christian.'" (Incidentally, Temple Salem itself is a converted synagogue.)
I'll cut to the chase: One of the most powerful parts of the evening is the roll call. Maybe it sounds dull: a representative from every church gets in line, says something very brief about the reason why their people showed up, and says how many of them are present. It's not dull. The tension actually builds in the room as you hear church after church, group after group tell their story in the most distilled way possible: one sentence each. It really drives home the idea that we are not alone; that it's our friends and neighbors for whom we act; what could be an abstract political stance becomes a concrete act of solidarity and fellowship.
Six speakers, members of GBIO congregations, were asked to make their cases for expanded health coverage: Peter Brook of Fourth Presbyterian told of going without health insurance in the construction industry, and how accidents have put him in debt. He's too "wealthy" to qualify for MassHealth. D.J. Fleurissant, a small business owner, spoke of his desire to provide health care for his employees. Margarida DePina spoke of her heartbreaking experiences as an immigrant with a daughter who has Down's syndrome and other health issues. And so on. Real people in agonizing situations. There are high stakes here.
Legislative leaders were acknowleged as well. Just so you know, they were: Reps. Jeffrey Sanchez, Deborah Blumer (one of the key sponsors), Ruth Balzer, Gloria Fox, Carl Sciortino, Brian Wallace, Alice Wolf (my rep), and Jim Marzilli; and Senators Jarrett Barrios (we will miss you in the Senate, JB), and Diane Wilkerson. (Richard Moore, the lead Senate sponsor, couldn't be there, but sent a letter of encouragement to all.) Feel free to drop any of these folks a line and tell them how swell they are.
But the climax of the evening was the address by Dr. Ray Hammond of Bethel AME Church. He affirmed health care as a necessity, not a luxury, and made no bones about the extraordinary effort that reforming our system was going to take. But like this passage, "we must go through the roof": resist pressure and cynicism. "We've got to do this!"
A call for volunteers to be precinct captains for the signature collection effort seemed to lack a bit of energy and focus, but the post-action count showed that the organization got the commitments it needed. The energy and momentum is there -- people know that it will take a lot to get it done. But they know how much is at stake, and what may happen if they don't get it done.
I'm going to bed -- I'll be away for the weekend, so any imperfections here will just have to stand. Have a beautiful (and dry) long weekend, all.
May 27, 2005
Another indication that Chief Justice Rehnquist is retiring
Virtually every Supreme Court observer is assuming that Chief Justice Rehnquist's ongoing and apparently quite serious bout with thyroid cancer will result in his retirement at the end of the current Supreme Court term next month. But, of course, there has been no word on this from Rehnquist himself, or from anyone else at the Court.
However, the unofficial federal judiciary gossip site, Underneath Their Robes, reports that Justice O'Connor has to this point only hired three law clerks for next year (she is entitled to hire four). This is highly unusual - Justice O'Connor ordinarily completes her hiring quite early in the process, and as far as I know she has always hired four clerks.
What's the connection? The site's mysterious author, "Article III Groupie" (or "A3G") speculates that O'Connor is holding a spot open so that she can offer a job to one of the Chief's three already-hired clerks (the Chief and Justice Stevens generally only hire three clerks). The Chief, as a retired Justice, would be entitled to only one law clerk (the other two presumably wouldn't have trouble landing a nice job elsewhere, but a Supreme Court clerkship is a unique gig). And, as A3G notes, O'Connor and Rehnquist have been good friends for many years, so it makes some sense that she would be willing to accommodate him in this way.
Now, it's possible that O'Connor doesn't know that Rehnquist is retiring, but is holding a spot just in case. But that seems unlikely to me - if Rehnquist does not retire, then he would keep his three clerks, and O'Connor would be one short. She could undoubtedly find someone to come work for her even on very short notice, but I doubt that she wants to conduct business that way - at this point, everyone who was a serious contender for a Supreme Court clerkship either has their clerkship or has accepted some other fancy law job, so a last-minute hire would be chancy. I don't think O'Connor would risk not being able to get a top-flight fourth clerk on the chance that Rehnquist might retire.
Why, you may ask, would Rehnquist have hired clerks at all if he intended to quit? Two answers. First, he may have completed the hiring before his illness got really bad. Second, and perhaps more importantly, if he did not hire law clerks on roughly the same schedule that he usually does, he would be effectively announcing that he was retiring, and of course he does not want to do that.
This is real inside baseball. But inside baseball may actually be quite a good indicator in these circumstances. Of course, it's speculation as to why Justice O'Connor has hired only three clerks - and it's also possible that A3G's information is not accurate. But if the info is good, I can't think of a better explanation.
So it DOES make you go blind!
The NYT reports:
The Food and Drug Administration said today that it had asked Pfizer Inc., the world's largest drug maker, to amend its warnings on Viagra in response to scattered reports of vision loss by people taking the drug.
Some blindness was reported by 38 men taking Viagra - a tiny fraction of the 23 million people who have used the drug - and among four men taking Cialis, a newer competitor.
I have nothing to add. You, however, are invited to snark away to your heart's content.
Romney vetoes stem cell bill; SJC rejects last-ditch effort to undo gay marriage ruling
Two utterly unsurprising developments in today's news. First, Governor Romney delivered on his promise to veto the stem cell research bill. As we've noted, the bill passed the legislature by veto-proof margins in both houses, and veto overrides are expected as early as next week.
Second, the Supreme Judicial Court rejected what everyone expected would be a futile attempt by Catholic Action League executive director C.J. Doyle to halt gay marriage until ... well, we're not actually sure exactly what Doyle wanted. In any case, he didn't get it. This was a pointless court proceeding - there was no way the Court was going to undo what it has done in this area (and today's opinion, unlike Goodridge and the subsequent Opinion of the Justices, was unanimous).
So gay marriage and stem cell research will both go forward in this Commonwealth. Keep your eye on whether the sky falls....
A twist on the usual override story
I find the Wellesley override story, as told in today's Globe, to be fascinating. There were two possible Proposition 2-1/2 overrides on the May 10 ballot. The first, for $3.6 million (average $329/year per taxpayer), failed by 17 votes. The second, for $2.6 million ($240/year), passed. Both measures would save about 60 teachers' jobs. A big part of the difference, apparently, was a Spanish language immersion program and the seven teachers associated with that program.
Here's where it gets interesting: some Wellesley parents, unhappy with the results, decided to raise the money on their own in an effort to save the Spanish program. They organized a fundraising effort, picked up a $7,000 check from a foundation, and ultimately went to the school board with $380,000 in hand to save the program.
But the board said "no"! It declined the money, and will cancel the program. Various school board types explained the decision in various terms: it'd be a bad precedent for wealthy parents to raise money to save their favored programs while letting others be cancelled; it'd mean that no one will ever vote "yes" on an override again because they figure the parents will just cough up the money themselves; "the voters have spoken." (It also appears that the parents raised only about two-thirds of the total amount needed to fund the program, but that doesn't seem to have driven the decision to reject the funds.)
I haven't completely thought this through yet, but something bothers me about it. Most basically, an override vote is essentially the town saying "we want to [start/continue] this program, but we can't afford it. Do you taxpayers want to hike your property taxes to pay for it?" And the town answers "yes" or "no." If the town as a whole answers "no," though, what's so terrible about the townspeople who did want the program from coming up with the money on their own? It's still their money, and in a way it's even fairer - now no one who voted "no" has to pay for a program they didn't want to support. And the path chosen by the town leaves everyone worse off - the board has to cancel a program they liked, the kids are deprived of a program their parents were willing to pay for, the parents feel like the school board doesn't listen to them, and the quality of the schools goes down, depressing everyone's property values.
Some of the school board members commented that using private funds to pay teacher salaries was a fundamentally different path than using private funds to, say, buy athletic equipment (which happens all the time). That doesn't strike me as very convincing - money is fungible.
Like I said, I haven't thought this through completely - I understand that there are complicated incentives at work in this kind of situation. What do you think?
Wind Power: Beyond Nantucket Sound
Well, Wired News shows a report with the incredible, unbelieveable, counter-intuitive, weirdo finding that wind power is just like, all around us, and just there for the taking.
At the risk of repeating myself: the candidate that enumerates a comprehensive, innovative wind power strategy for the Commonwealth will be much closer to getting my support. This is a big one. (Hat tip: Carpundit.)
In other wind farm news... a group of folks from the Cape just left for Denmark for a tour of the wind farms there. The Wind Farm blog's Jack Coleman is on the trip, and reporting on it for Cape Cod Today. And here's extra-special full disclosure from me: leading the trip are William and Dorte Griswold of Centerville, who happen to be my cousins, and a big reason I got interested in the issue to begin with.