Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Reform to Education is Needed

Our education system is broken.  We have students that are struggling and we are locked into a system that rewards teachers for hanging in there the longest, not ones that effectively teach and inspire their students.

Teaching is and will remain some of the most important jobs in America.  Teachers instruct and enlighten new generations, driving them towards success.  We need to ensure that those who fill these jobs are both well qualified and well prepared to do this.  Merit based teacher hiring, promotion, and retention will encourage teachers to be the best they can possibly be.

This is not all on the teachers though.  Instructors who teach teachers need to be the best they can be also.  Teachers need to be well prepared so that they can succeed. Ensuring that we have extensive teacher training is essential.  Teachers should be informed on strategies that help motivate students.  They can share their ideas so they all can succeed.  Such collaboration must be encouraged in the education system.

In order to push students to learn more, we must challenge them, but not beyond their limits so that they are overwhelmed.  In our educational system, there are often only two streams: Grade Level and Honors/Advanced Placement.  There is no middle ground.  Often students feel they are unready or unprepared for the most challenging class, but then, devoid of options, are frustrated with the simplicity of the Grade Level Class.

This needs to change.  Teachers in all classes need to asses student skill and willpower to offer or assign tiered assignments varying the challenge that students have.  Some students may not be able to go beyond what Grade Level requires.  Very well.  Others can have a challenge, so that they may still challenge themselves and expand their knowledge without overwhelming themselves.  This would not require any additional "Accelerated" classes from being added to the school course offerings, thus eliminating any additional class/teacher cost.  Though all assignments may not be tiered, as to ensure grade fairness, a significant amount of increased challenged could be added to the courses with this system.  Teachers can assign some tired assignments, and present a choice to the student on others, encouraging students to challenge themselves, but within their limits.  This provides a way for all students, not matter their skill level, to push themselves without increasing their stress level.

W.B. Yeats once said, "Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire."  By challenging our students, we can light student's intellectual fires so they burn bright and powerful into adulthood, catalyzing and illuminating their futures.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Campaign Finance Reform

In 2012, PBS Frontline aired a documentary on the effect of outside interest groups on elections.  Though the program focuses mostly on the state of Montana, their findings do have wide ranging implications.  If you have the time, give it a watch.

Here's a trailer for the program:

The link to the full documentary on the PBS Frontline site is here:

Saturday, June 22, 2013

IRS Scandal and the Future of America's Least Favorite Institution

After the recent breaking news that the Internal Revenue Service was giving additional scrutiny to the tax exempt status of Tea Party Groups based on having words such as "Patriot" or "Tea Party" in their name, there was massive political outcry on both sides of the aisle, most of which was well warranted.  Groups should not be targeted purely based on the name of their group.  But to make the assumption that the IRS was completely uncalled for in it's extra scrutiny and purely based on targeting conservative groups is not.

According to a recent NPR report, many liberal groups with had missions or names having to do with "progressive" tendencies  were also targeted to a significant extent by this IRS oversight.  This means that the IRS blanket of these groups is not a mechanism of the party in the White House trying to delegitimize groups that should have non profit status.
IRS Building in Washington (Washington Post)
But the larger issue that this scandal raises is the fallout and effect on the IRS's future policy.  The political posturing that is taking place in Washington takes away from the fact that investigation and scrutiny is what the IRS was set up to provide.  Rhetoric like that of John Boehner, who insisted that he was concerned with "who was going to jail" rather than who would resign in the wake of the scandal makes the situation even worse.

The result of this controversy will unfortunately make the IRS less likely to provide scrutiny where there should be, instead making them gun shy of political backlash. This spells bad news for rooting out organizations that really should have a little extra scrutiny in order to get non-profit status.  The IRS clearly states that in order for organizations to receive a 501(c)4 charitable tax exemption, they need to have their activities be focused "exclusively to charitable, educational, or recreational purposes." ( This means that in order for a group to get such an exemption, they cannot be focused primarily on political actions. Instead of giving these groups a rubber stamp, the IRS should be providing extra scrutiny to groups that have dubious charitable actions.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Government and Organized Labor

One of the signature political issues that divide the two political parties for a long time and continuing today is the role for government in managing organized labor.  Last year, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker faced a recall election after he took on public unions in the governmental workforce and received a huge backlash from the public sector.  More recently, Michigan governor Rick Snyder signed into law a bill making Michigan the newest "right to work" state, following in the lead of states such as Indiana by  preventing mandatory deductions from payroll to fund union activities.  Opinions on both sides are charged, so it is important to get the facts right.

First, it is important to make clear the meaning of the law on face value,  The bill does not, as the name might imply, that employees are guaranteed work in any way.  The only thing it guarantees is that individual employees at a business or organization at which a union is present will not be required to join that union as a condition for joining the workforce and are not obligated to make payments to the union.  Pro-business groups see this as allowing a more natural version of capitalism to let loose in the American economy, which will in turn loosen the regulations on corporations and create more jobs.  Opponents to reductions in the power of labor see this as an unnecessary attack on the right of workers to organize and collectively bargain.  If a company that has a union has no means to keep up the membership of the union, the union has the potential to lose members, and when it comes to organizing, the more people, the more power.

The issue of organized labor is complicated in America, since it is both a political and economic issue.  As seen below, the majority of political donations by unions goes to Democratic candidates, and the majority of business donations go to Republican candidates, setting up a constant fight as either side plays politics to their base in order to get support during election season.

There is also an economic side to organized labor.   According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for all major demographics, unionized workers on average earn more that non-unionized workers.  This has been taken different ways, depending on what economic view economists subscribe to.

One school of thought says that the higher pay workers are and greater job security they have guaranteed by the union, the greater purchasing power they have  and the more likely they are to spend it, since they are not as concerned about saving in the event that they loose their job.  This means that more money is being pumped into the economy as consumer spending, which is approximately 70% of the US Gross Domestic Product (World Bank). Conversely, one can take the argument that unions raise labor costs and thus lower businesses ability to make profits.

I won't debate on what economic model is the most relevant, but consider this:  Unions have had both an extremely beneficial impact in protecting individual workers, akin to protecting the American ideal of individualism, but have also expanded to have great power, which could result in not representing the interests of individual members.  However, just as in elections, not everyone gets their first choice in everything.

I encourage you to look up the range of political views for yourself to be educated on this complicated and relevant issue in American politics today.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Defeat of Toomey-Manchin Illustrates Problems With Political System and Power of NRA

The defeat of the Toomey-Manchin sponsored gun control bill, which would expand background checks on gun transactions is an unfortunate product of our divided political system and the extreme power of the National Rifle Association and supporters of firearms rights.  

As widespread public polling suggests, a majority of Americans support some form of increased gun control.  A substantial minority would like to see it stay the same, rather than decrease.  Therefore, there is strong support for some sort of gun control.  While it is unfortunate that it is only after a tragedy such as the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut that strong gun-control supporters come out, it is good nonetheless that efforts are being made so that gun related tragedies will never happen again.

UConn/Hartford Courant Poll

The need for action seems lost upon multiple members of congress. Along with the defeat of the bill providing for background checks, there is a signature lack of urgency on the part on congressmen to do something about America's gun problem.  Some members obviously believe that no problem exists.  They believe strongly in the Second Amendments and contend that guns make us safer instead of harming us. 

Their arguments, though don't really hold up.  Few detailed and widespread studies have been completed on the effect of guns on crime.  Most of what goes on in the gun control arena is mostly rhetoric, and poor rhetoric at that.  The argument that the solution to criminals having guns is to arm everyone, and hope that the shootout turns out A-ok is a recipe for disaster.  

There is legitimate concern of the part of gun rights activists that gun laws will not be effective at taking away guns from criminals while hurting those that want (or possibly need?) guns and a perfectly sane. However, this is the purpose of the gun control debate and the bills and their amendments going through congress.  Some action needs to be taken, and it's high time to figure out if effective gun control can work on a national scale.  Voting against the bills and filibustering them too only delays a productive process.

There are a lot of guns in America, and collectively, they do a lot of damage.  Rather sane people can die or kill someone in accidental shootings.  Many more people die in accidental gun related deaths than mass shootings or murders.  With effective gun control, we can limit these from happening.  Again, stopping these latest gun control bills from going through the senate stops the debate on how to save lives.

A significant problem in the gun debate in congress is the political clout of the NRA.  All too often, we see that the best interests and the will of the people take second chair to the powers of special interests.  In this case, the main special interest on guns is the National Rifle Association.

The NRA has huge power in congress, mostly because of the way it funds candidates for elections.  These candidates rely on the NRA for financial support.  The NRA is also quite powerful because of its vocality and presence in many Americans' lives.  The NRA is adept politically, one of the reasons that it has been so successful at resisting further gun control.  They have a rather straightforward plan and execute well, made easier by large coffers and candidates eager for their monetary and vocal support. 

More detailed information on which candidates received money from the NRA can be found here.  This is a link to which candidates for the House of Representatives received money.  There is a tab for the Senate as well, as well as a map of the NRA's electoral impact.  It is quite substantial.  In the 2010 midterm elections, the NRA gave money to or endorsed candidates from every state excluding Hawaii.

Right now, the best hope for gun control legislation is if a group of citizens and private donors organize to create a powerful political organization to combat the power of the NRA.  The people need to speak at the ballot box if gun control is going to become a reality.  At the moment, hopes are dim that congress by itself will take any meaningful action.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Problems In Our World: More Complex Than You Might Think

Many of the problems that have arisen over the past decades seem, on face value, to be about religion.  While these conflicts, such as the ones in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, do have religious tensions that lead to escalation, the problems are more complicate than that.

These problems can often be traced back to geopolitical, economic, or social issues.  In its most basic form, conflict arises between those that have resources and those that don't.  Competition for power, supremacy, resources, and many other aspects of a successful society has been fraught with conflict.  As Graham Fuller argues in his book, A World Without Islam, the world would not be too different today without Islam because of these alternate conflicts that exist.  You can hear more about this here,, where Fuller is interviewed on NPR's Talk of the Nation.

Fuller's Book

If we realize how conflicts come about and realize that we are dealing with a very complex part of the world in the Middle East, we may have more success in our endeavors.  Problems hardly ever boil down to white and black, regardless of how they are painted to the electorate.  Realizing the comprehensiveness of the situation can be our best strategy going forward as we attempt to find peace in the Middle East.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Hamilton Project's Interactive Budget Simulator

The Hamilton Project has recently put together an interactive simulator in which users can craft their own version of the US budget.  By making selections, users can calculate how the implementation of certain cuts or revenue proposals will impact the budget over a 10 year period.  We encourage everyone to try their hand at this.  Above all, it shows how difficult it is to make a lasting impact on the US debt without making hard sacrifices.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Turnover in Senate Increasing, But Don't Expect Sweeping Changes

Last month, both FiveThirtyEight and CNN Politics did in-depth pieces on a curious phenomenon in the United States Senate.  As the graphic shows below, recently there have been an unusually high amount of Senate retirements.  This session is the third consecutive legislative session to show this.  45 Senators are serving in their first 6 year term.

There are multiple possible explanations for why this is occurring   Some believe that this is simply a generational shift.  Every 20-30 years, historians have found, their is higher than average turnover.  We seem to be hitting one of those periods of high turnover.

Others contend that these senators are leaving because right now, being an ex-senator is far more lucrative than being a current senator.  Jim DeMint notably left the Senate to take a well-paying job as president of the Heritage Foundation.  This is indicative of a new trend where jobs taken following retirement from congress are far better paying than they used to be.  Retired legislators can make money lobbying in the private sector or influencing their former colleagues.  

There are also some who argue it is the increased partisan nature of the Senate that has driven many to retire.  When Maine Senator Olympia Snowe retired, she cited the political climate as a principle reason she was leaving.  

This is also the main reason that despite the turnover in the Senate, the division in congress is likely to continue.  Do not expect sweeping reforms to come out of the Senate, for the people being elected are partisan standard waivers replacing far more moderate retirees.  At the ballot box, moderates are also being replaced by party hardliners.  Elizabeth Warren, a noted liberal, defeated moderate Republican Scott Brown, just one example of how polarized the Senate and the rest of congress is becoming.  Moderates are a dying breed in seems, and we are experiencing an extraordinary amount of partisan division.

Don't keep your fingers crossed that the new senators will want to compromise and work on political reform   They have their own agendas, and soon they will be up for reelection, meaning they will need to bend to their constituents in order to assure that they can remain in office.  

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Importance of Manufacturing

As the United States begins its rebound from the recession, it is important to highlight how important the manufacturing industry is the the our nation's economy.  Manufacturing was one of the economic sectors that was hit hardest by the recession, and many of those jobs will either never or take a very long time to return.  

While there has been a significant increase of offshoring with manufacturing jobs, there is still a lot of work done here in America.  While some would argue that manufacturing is not as critical as it once was to warrant government support because of weak job creation numbers, these people miss a critical part of why we need manufacturing jobs in the United States.

large scale employment is not the main benefit of a strong manufacturing sector in our economy.  Support of manufacturing, specifically advanced manufacturing, will help the United States retain its status as a global hotspot for innovation and technological advancement.  Today, this is the main source of US competitiveness.  We have to realize that we cannot make everything anymore.  Manufacturing on large scales is much cheaper in east Asian countries.  Where we do have an edge, however, is the innovative spirit and technological know-how to come up with and create new technologies that will make world a better place.  

Today, the manufacturing sector makes up only around 11 percent of our nation's GDP.  As you can see from the graph above, the United States has experienced a constant downward trend in this statistic.  This is fairly constant with the rest of the world, on average.  However, despite it small share of GDP, according to the Brookings Institution, the manufacturing sector conducts 68 percent of research and development in the United States.  Brookings also notes that 22 percent of US manufacturers introduce new processes that increase productivity, as opposed to only 8 percent of non-manufacturers.  Additionally, manufacturing took up 60 percent of US exports despite its modest share in GDP.  

Although now a smaller part of our economy, the manufacturing sector is still very critical for the well being of our entire nation.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Providing for an Innovation Based Economy

Just as our roads and bridges might need a boost, according to some Democrats, so too might our digital resources.  We often consider infrastructure to be just physical aspects of our society.  While highways, trains, dams, and other parts of our physical infrastructure are certainly critical to our daily lives, in the 21st century, we must also consider the critical nature of broadband, digital, mobile, and cloud based infrastructure as well.

Hoover Dam

Fast wireless and internet connections are critical to the growth and advancement of a high powered society such as the United States.  Because the world is "going mobile" it is critical that the United States keep up with the rest of the pack in supplying infrastructure for this to be possible.  Making sure America is at the cutting edge in cloud and mobile based technologies can promote innovation and cement the United State's status as the leading innovation hub in the world.  Enhancing this infrastructure means enhanced performance and enhanced performance means growth for this nation.

Local, State, and National governments, as well as private companies, need to take the lead to make faster internet and better data centers a reality.  According to an article in Wired Magazine, approximately 19 million American's can't subscribe to high speed internet, simply because they live in areas to expensive to serve.  Major companies have also had slow growth on upload speed improvements, the staple of cloud based computing.

Efficient, reliable, and rapid information transfer is critical in any economy, especially one that operates on a global scale.  This issue is critical to many other problems we face in this country, namely in health, national security, business, and education.

We need high speed internet access for most people, if not everyone, in this nation.  We are one of the most innovative countries in the world.  We can find a way.  The improvements made could help the economic production of this country enormously.  The first step in creating an economy with a strong innovation backbone is to improve our digital infrastructure for the future.