Note: This blog draws in part on my experiences and observations interviewing political figures, writers, and analysts for "The Campbell Conversations" on WRVO. To hear past interviews I refer to in these posts, please go to the show's website. The views expressed here are solely my own, and do not represent Syracuse University, the Campbell Institute, or the WRVO Stations.

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Friday, December 31, 2010

Wait Till THIS Year for Reform?

Political reform in New York is a bit like the Brooklyn Dodgers, minus some of the bedrock faith.  Frustration builds, commitments are pledged, hope leaks back in, and then the result is not the one everyone wanted, and some had even thought possible. 

In each of the last several election cycles, dissatisfaction with Albany has set new high-water marks, but that has not translated into significant changes in the political process or--more importantly--the political culture.  It's safe to say that dissatisfaction with Albany peaked again this year--how else to explain Carl Paladino, for example.  So what difference will it make?

Maybe a lot, and here's why.

A new governor who is energetic, well-connected, ambitious, and experienced--and who has had the opportunity to go to school on the failures of past governors and of himself--is coming into office.  He wants to accomplish big things.  A new majority from a different party is coming into the Senate, and it's keen to solidify its position and provide a long-term bulwark against a lower house that will remain Democratic for the foreseeable future.  It too needs to show that it can actually accomplish things.

The problem, of course, is that there is no money to do anything new and substantial--the question instead is what to cut, and how.  Granted, just being able to make the right cuts and creatively reorganize the state's finances would be a great achievement, and in an era of financial retrenchment it could provide a resume to back national ambitions.

But more is wanted, and more is probably needed.  And the great thing about reforming the process is that it doesn't cost a lot of money--sometimes it doesn't cost a penny.  Even a public-financing scheme for elections is small beer compared against Medicaid or school funding. 

Also, don't forget that the national desire to see Washington change its ways put a lot of the wind in Barack Obama's sails in 2008--and the perceived failure to deliver on that hope turned into a gale-force gust in the mid-term "shellacking."  A governor who could show that he or she actually helped to change the way a state's political system worked would really have something to brag about in a presidential campaign.  And a State Senate majority that was able to deliver on political reform would mark itself as a new and fresh element in state politics. 

Everyone wins on this one.  It could happen.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Feature Guest Post -- Lingering Questions After Repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell

The following is a guest post from Maria Rainier.  Maria has a background in English, writing, and piano performance, and has worked as a writer, editor, consultant, and piano teacher.  She describes herself as follows:  "Maria Rainier is a freelance writer and blog junkie. She is currently a resident blogger at First in Education, researching online degree programs and blogging about student life. In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop."

A president’s signature does not an easy policy make.  Even after the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” victory remains incomplete for many victims, including those discharged under the old policy and those would-be ROTC cadets at schools that do not, since Vietnam-era tensions, host the program.  Mixed prospects now loom before the military.
Questions From Those Discharged Under DADT
The same could be said of Richard Collins, who, after 10 years of faithful and excellent service in the Air Force, was discharged under DADT after civilians reported off-base that he kissed his partner.  Unlike regularly discharged troops who receive a severance payment, Collins received only half the $26,000 he was due, thanks to DADT.
“It’s not just about the money,” he told NPR on December 27, “it’s about what’s right.”  Collins is currently part of an ACLU lawsuit attempting to claim the rest of his severance pay.
Still others are suing to claim pay as well, except they are attempting to recover the tuition fees the government shelled out for their education while in the military—until they were discharged under DADT, at which point the military recouped the tuition.
Others wish to re-enlist, as President Obama urged those discharged under DADT to do if they wished.  Those discharged under DADT may sue to regain the retirement benefits after serving 20 years—even if several of those years were spent discharged.  That’s what Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, is trying to do with an unnamed major who, after four years since being discharged from the Air Force, wishes to re-enlist in 2011.
According to NPR, the military remains quiet on how these issues will be handled, as well as how it will treat gays and lesbians with families (which would go against the current Defense of Marriage Act that currently prevents the military from recognizing same-sex spouses).
Questions From Those Who Want to Serve
Meanwhile, since the repeal, other bodies have been pondering rebuilding burned bridges with the military.  According to the Huffington Post, most Ivy League schools did away with ROTC programs during the Vietnam era amidst academic power struggles and boiling political tensions.  In its article, “Colleges Reconsider ROTC after DADT Repeal,” HP examines changing attitudes at Yale and other universities.
Although campuses did not “ban” ROTC (it was more a mutual break-up), the divide between university and military comes from a misconception: “People don’t think students want to serve in the military,” Yale sophomore James Campbell claims.  “We [just] haven’t had the same channels as everyone else.”
This may change since Yale president Richard Levin declared after the repeal of DADT that the faculty would consider reintroducing ROTC onto its campus next semester.  Some members of university faculty, including psychology professor Ewart Thomas at Stanford, think that bringing ROTC courses will do little to alleviate what he sees as the intrinsic discrimination against non-heterosexuals in the military.  Others say that military training has nothing to offer academically to students.  Still others shrug their shoulders—the military doesn’t want brainiacs wielding rifles around, do they?
Lt. Col. Steven Alexander (head of the Army ROTC program at Cornell) claims that civil engineering majors and other critical thinkers may be key in upcoming years.  “The military [right now] is solving all sorts of crazy problems we didn’t think we’d have to solve,” he says, “like building a sewer system or an electrical grid in a third world country.”
Growth in recruitment numbers might not hurt the armed forces, either, since their pocketbooks may be aching after the aforementioned lawsuits.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Fatal Extraction, Part 2 -- Reflections on Professionalism, and on Medical Error

Two cheers for the Post-Standard, for its extensive follow up on the story about the Manlius dentist and the more general problem of lax policing of the profession (see an earlier post, "Fatal Extraction").

Why just two cheers and not three?  Two reasons.

First, because the story underplays the dental profession's own role--and responsibility--in creating and managing such a look-the-other-way process.  The way the story is framed and the way the relevant information has been selected, all the ire is directed toward the government.  But there was a time when being a professional, and therefore being part of a profession, carried with it a strong sense of the work's social importance, a vision of the public good and how one's activity related to it, and an ethical commitment.  Now, the focus has become more limited to expert knowledge and skills.  Steven Brint's In an Age of Experts provides an interesting summary of this shift during the 20th century.  For the medical profession more specifically, Paul Starr's Social Transformation of American Medicine is insightful (see my earlier reference to that work).

And second, because although the story points out that there are critics (such as NYPIRG) of the policing of medical doctors, who claim that it's also too lax, the contrast drawn between doctors and dentists might seem to suggest that things are OK regarding the former.  But note that the Institute of Medicine has estimated that in U.S. hospitals, up to 98,000 deaths each year are caused by preventable "medical error."  A more recent estimate by the health care quality company HealthGrades puts the number at 195,000.  Granted, the numbers are for hospitals and so the errors there are not being made solely by doctors, but according to these figures it's safer out on the highways.

Friday, December 24, 2010

How the Media Hurts Politics

I've written on this topic many times before, and I'm certainly not the only one to do so, but two items in the news recently caught my eye and got me thinking about this again. 

First, the productivity surge of the lame-duck Congress has been widely touted as a "win" for President Obama.  Why does someone have to win and lose?  Both institutions have seen their approval ratings drop, both have an interest in getting things accomplished, and the compromises struck to get these recent things passed should be seen as (at least partial) agreements and compromises--the way the system "works," when it's working.  Declaring a victor just feeds the very "either-or" problem that the media tells us citizens are frustrated with.

Second, more in the vein of revealing minutia, consider the following "Consider This" passage from Thursday's Post-Standard, written by the paper's editors, regarding the county legislature's approval of a pay raise for the comptroller, which will put his salary more in line with those of other county comptrollers:  "Meanwhile, those of us in the private sector (the real world) lucky enough to be employed have gone years without pay raises or, worse, endured pay cuts while watching our expenses--including taxes--rise.  Giving Antonacci a huge pay raise, and doing it now, shows just how far out of touch our politicians are with the public.  Are you working for us, or are we working for you?"

Criticizing the decision is of course fair game, and the paper has a point on the substantive issue.  But the disdain for politics and politicians dripping off these words does not advance the goal of productive civic engagement and political dialogue.  This is simply anti-government in tone, and counter-productive.  Furthermore, the invoking of a "we" here, through the use of "us in the private sector," invites a joining of the writers with the readers that might warrant some additional transparency on the part of the paper, if one wants to follow that logic to its conclusion. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Silver Lining in the Census Blues?

My title is pushing the bounds of reality, but I'm going to try.  There's not much good news for the state--or our region's political future--in the Census report out today.  New York is going to lose two congressional seats, from 29 down to 27.  That puts us at the lowest level in two centuries, and means that the state will come out on the shorter end of the stick when it comes to the federal dollars allocated to the states on the basis of population--according to one news report about $4 trillion over the next ten years.

With two less seats, there will almost certainly have to be some significant reshaping of the congressional districts Upstate.  It would be hard to drop two seats by just rearranging the deck chairs on the RMS New York.  So here's the first silver lining:  Perhaps the need for a major redrawing will occasion the shift to an alternative method of redistricting.  Just how to constitute an independent commission (or other approaches toward the task) is a topic for another day, but it's possible that this development could push the dial a little closer to real reform.

Across the nation, if you're a Democrat and keen to see President Obama re-elected, this is not good news, as the general shift in congressional representation--the basis for votes in the Electoral College--favors the South and the West, which are comparatively more friendly to Republicans, on the whole (save California and a few others of course). 

In our own region, the need to substantially redraw the districts will throw our congressional politics into greater flux, as within the state, Upstate has lost ground to Downstate, and therefore there will be more re-slicing necessary up here.  With two new Republicans elected in the greater Syracuse area, it's not clear whether Democrats or Republicans will ultimately be more hurt by all this.

But if we take a further step back and more generally consider the question of the political influence of the state in national politics, other factors arguably rival the loss of two congressional seats and two votes in the Electoral College--and thus supply the second silver lining.  Consider the following:  Chuck Schumer continues to climb up the ladder of influence in the U.S. Senate, and is now among the very top senators.  Kirsten Gillibrand has become a fast-rising star, and is even mentioned as a future presidential prospect (premature, I think, but the conversations are nonetheless happening)--and she replaced a senator who is now Secretary of State.  We've just elected a dynamic, ambitious governor who knows his way around Washington.  And the mayor of New York City has prominent national stature and is clearly not leaving the political stage anytime soon. 

Granted, none of this erases the loss of the seats, the College votes, and the federal dollars, but we may not have hit the political iceberg, just yet.

Can We Really Get Serious About Debt Reduction?

Len Burman, my colleague at the Maxwell School and Moynihan Chair of Public Affairs, has posed five pointed questions about the recommendations of the President's debt reduction commission, along with a very handy synopsis.  You can find it here.  Len is a nationally-recognized expert on tax and budget issues.  Please take a look and join the discussion here, on another blog or website, or with your neighbors and family.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Who Are the Liberals, Who and Where Are the Rich, and Where Are the Taxed?

Two good columns in the Post-Standard today, one by David Brooks via the New York Times, and the other by Froma Harrop via the Providence Journal.

I often disagree with Brooks's interpretations, but I think he's got it about right in his distinction between the president as "network liberal" and "cluster liberal." 

One of the aspects of Obama's campaign that appealed to Independents and younger (potential) voters was the tantalizing promise that as president he might change the way Washington worked, to make it more problem-solving focused and compromise friendly.  That obviously hasn't happened, and the disappointment over the failure has played a significant role in the decline of his popularity, as well as the reduced Democratic turnout in the mid-term elections.  Yes, there are lots of other factors, but ignoring this one misses something important.  The president explicitly and rightly pointed to it in his day-after-the-election press conference, and promised to readjust his approach.

Brooks's "network liberal" gets at that readjustment, and it's one I think that tactically the president has to make if he wants to have any chance of realizing the broader political-process goals his campaign set forward.

Harrop writes an interesting piece about geographic patterns in the United States when it comes to who exactly is wealthy--in terms of lifestyles actually lived versus sums on a ledger sheet--and compares that against our red-blue political geography regarding the debate over the tax deal.  She finds some rich ironies in who is pushing for what in this debate, relative to actual experience.

But awareness of another aspect of this geographic pattern is required to fully appreciate the ironies Harrop brings out--the state-based variations in public policies and taxation.  I wrote about this last year in a Post-Standard piece titled "US Isn't Europe, But What about NY?"  The gist was that when you look at the overall tax bite of the US relative to the gross domestic product (GDP), we seem pretty lean in comparison with nations in Europe--but if you break it down further to look at the overall tax bite in each state relative to the gross domestic product in that state (GSP), New York begins to look more like Britain than Texas in many respects (even though we don't enjoy many of the services that Brits receive).  Bearing that additional variation in mind further adds to the ironies Harrop identifies.

The Post-Standard no longer appears to have this piece on its website, so I'm including text of it below.

Post-Standard April, 2009

Like Dick Polman writing on this page last week, I too have been ruminating over the criticism that President Obama's budget moves us too close to Europe.  By some accounts, the President's policies even threaten to mark us with the scarlet "S" of socialism. 

Polman emphasized the many differences between America and Europe, and pointed out that in some important respects, being more European wouldn't be such a bad thing.  But taking a further step back, we appear more similar than different, and some of those differences are not what we might expect. 

Overall, our economies are different versions of the same thing—a system that relies on regulated markets, mixes private and public ownership, and provides social insurance through tax revenues.  Consider the following:  Although labor in Europe generally enjoys more political power than it does in the United States, and social welfare policies there are more generous than they are here, even Sweden has its share of wealthy entrepreneurs and executives.  In Britain, there has been a recent move toward greater use of the private sector in areas such as transportation, health care, and education. 

And in the United States, while we might be comfortable with the government purchasing military equipment from private vendors, we would not want to rent our primary military personnel from the private sector, nor do we find it strange that the vast majority of our educators work directly for the government.

Granted, there's no doubt that when we place the various national economic arrangements along a continuum, the United States stands at a noticeable distance from the European pack, particularly in terms of our weaker public sector appetite. 

According to figures posted on and derived from Organization for Economic Co-Operation & Development data, as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) overall government taxes in the United States in 2006 were about 28 percent, which is lean when compared with countries like Italy, Norway, and France, all of which gobbled up over 40 percent.  We keep company with Japan, Turkey, and South Korea.

Also note that the areas where we outspend our peers can mark us as different, most notably military and incarceration.

But the appearance of an overall American stinginess on taxes has been aided in recent years by our large federal budget deficits.  At the national level, we spend far more than we tax.  The current budget deficit alone exceeds 12 percent of GDP.  Indeed, one of the newest differences between the United States and Europe is Europe's resistance to deficit-financed spending to stimulate the economy. 

Even if deficit spending is reduced from its current astronomical level, the practice is likely to be with us for a while.  President Obama's budget for 2010, for example, puts federal spending at about 25 percent of our current GDP, and projects a deficit of 8 percent of GDP.

The other important factor masked by international comparisons is the variation among our 50 states. 

Ian Pulsipher of the National Conference of State Legislatures recently provided me with data on state and local taxation as a percentage of gross state product (GSP).  It may come as no surprise that New York is different from the rest of the country.  In Pennsylvania and California, for example, state and local taxes accounted for 9.6 percent and 9.4 percent of GSP, respectively, while in New York the figure was 12 percent.  The only state surpassing New York was Maine.

The tax effects of being in a New York state of mind are underlined by’s 2008 international “Tax Misery Index.”  When comparing the tax rates levied on those in the top income brackets (from all levels of government combined), a worker in New York City could proclaim Ich bin ein Berliner.  In contrast, a top earner in Texas was comfortably sandwiched between Uzbekistan and Ireland—8 spots below Illinois, 15 spots below Britain, 20 spots below New York City, and 37 spots below Sweden.

So while the United States as a whole is distinct from Europe in terms of taxation and spending, in some respects New York looks more like Britain than Texas—except, of course, for things like universal health care and an extensive public transportation infrastructure.

After noting a slew of important economic and policy differences between America and Europe, Polman concludes that the cry of Europeanization is “cartoon hyperbole.”  I think he's got that largely right. 

But further unpacking the differences uncovers some ingredients worth considering—and reconsidering—as we continue to follow our own economic recipe.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Not Lighting Up for the Holidays

Several short news pieces this morning--amidst the thick reporting on the tax deal or non-deal--about White House press secretary Robert Gibbs' discussion of President Obama quitting smoking--or to more precisely follow Gibbs' comments, not having seen the president smoke for the past nine months or so.  You can view the relevant excerpts of the press conference here.

It caught my eye because I had been thinking about this not too long ago, and in fact brought up the topic over dinner when Washington Post White House correspondent Anne Kornblut visited the Maxwell School in October.  I had been struck by the lack of attention the White House press core had apparently given the subject in recent months, which I found odd in light of the scrutiny the president's health normally receives, and the fact (I think) that Obama is the first president since Richard Nixon to regularly smoke cigarettes (as opposed to the occasional cigar).  The treatment of Obama's smoking--all I could recall hearing about it was the report from his otherwise aced health exam that his doctor had recommended that he stop--struck me as almost Kennedyesque in its looking the other way.  Add to that the moral overtones surrounding the habit, and the silence was even more puzzling.

Kornblut acknowledged that it wasn't getting attention, and wasn't sure why.

Given the stress that the president has obviously been under in recent weeks, with the mid-term elections and now the mutiny among his own party on his tax deal, it's natural that a reporter would ask whether the president was lighting up more frequently.  And thinking back on when he supposedly stopped and the political deals that have been struck since, members of the Left wing of his caucus might want to convince him to pick up the habit again.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

She Said That Already

The Post-Standard reported today that Joanie Mahoney said on Friday Dec. 3 that she is running for a second term as county executive, and is not interested in a job with the Cuomo administration.  Actually, she first said that publicly in a taping for The Campbell Conversations, which WRVO excerpted and aired as a news story on Friday, Nov. 19.  You can hear her talk about this in more detail in the podcast of the interview.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

What Deficit Reduction Commission?

The tax deal struck between President Obama and Congressional Republicans is being subjected to the usual dissection in terms of who won--Democrats and the President v. Republicans; rich v. middle-class and the poor.  It's a deal after all, so there's stuff for everyone.

The big loser of course--and once again--is the future taxpayer.  The deal consists entirely of lost tax revenues and additional government spending.  Not that some of these measures aren't arguably necessary for the economy right now, especially the extension of unemployment benefits.  And I personally will appreciate the almost one-third reduction in my social security taxes next year.

But we've just added yet again to our collective credit card balance, to the tune of (based on a couple estimates) over $800 billion.  To channel Everett Dirksen, there was a time when that was thought to be real money.  The problem is, it still is real money.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Wiki Approach to Police Surveillance Cameras?

The assurances that Mayor Stephanie Miner and Police Chief Frank Fowler made to cement support for the new police surveillance cameras on the Near West Side included promises that the cameras would not be routinely monitored by the police, and that the tapes would automatically be destroyed after 14 days (unless they recorded something relevant to a criminal investigation, I assume).  I'm not so sure that these limits don't diminish the cameras' usefulness, but the promises were made in part to allay concerns about a "police state" directed toward certain city populations.

I'm wondering whether it might be worth considering a completely different approach to this problem--and underline here that I'm wondering, thinking on paper and throwing out an idea, not making a strong policy argument.  This is intended as food for thought.

But rather than constructing narrow boundaries around access to the material, why not instead fully open it up by making the live video streams publicly available online?  A similar idea was proposed a few years back in Texas by Gov. Rick Perry in order to help monitor remote stretches of private land bordering Mexico.  Individual cameras were to be identified by a number, and citizens viewing the video streams could report suspicious activity by dialing a toll-free number. 

Needless to say, the politics surrounding this proposal were controversial, and tapped the sensitive nerves of race and ethnicity--critics dubbed it the "virtual posse."  Many of the objections voiced then were similar to those we've heard regarding the cameras on the Near West Side, and ultimately the project didn't fly.

But the approach may offer several advantages here.  First, it takes the issue of police control over the information off the table, and replaces that with what is in essence a community-wide neighborhood watch program.  Second, it introduces a potentially more effective preventive aspect to the enterprise, as activity leading to crime can be reported as it's happening.  Third, it has the potential to help solve the resource and person-power problem embedded in using the cameras, as now the wealth of material will have enough eyes looking at it to make good use of it.  Fourth, and probably most important, it allows the people who themselves live in the neighborhood, and who suffer from the increased criminal activity, to meaningfully participate in the process.

Obviously, this idea raises deep concerns of its own, and on its face, may seem to be over the top.  It evokes notions of Soviet-style ratting out of fellow citizens, and raises worries about our neighbors knowing our private behavior.  But remember that the cameras are installed in public places--the activity there is already observable to anyone who happens to be physically present at a given moment.  And the idea is that the video stream is publicly available, not available to just a few.  Taking the value of transparency seriously in the digital age suggests these kinds of approaches.  We may be safer from some of the intrusions we fear by opening processes up rather than trying to control them through government authorities.

Two resource-based challenges for such an approach also come in to play, however, which in a city strapped for cash probably make the idea a non-starter.  First, it would be essential to make sure that the communities where the cameras are placed have widespread access to the video streams, and that means supplying basic computer equipment and the training to use it.  Concerns about the "digital divide" become front and center.  Second, it would make sense to expand the number and coverage of the cameras to other city areas, so that one neighborhood wasn't singled out.  Both are expensive.

Food for thought anyway....