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.

In addition to comments, I'd love to have guest posts. Please send ideas or full-blown posts to me at

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Tiger Mothra

I was just settling in to write a post about the Tiger Mother hoopla, when I discovered that Cynthia Tucker had already said most of what I wanted to say, and it's here.

What I'd underscore from her piece is that one of the reasons for the ridiculous amount of attention this woman and book have received is that among certain classes, a version of the Tiger Parent is fast multiplying.  "Tiger Mother Lite" is probably the best term.  There are tons of them here at the university, for example, and it's fun sport to watch them talk about their kids at a social event--a polite exchange of information that is in reality a battle for supremacy by proxy, the verbal equivalent of a West Side Story rumble.

Ultimately, if the fallout from the book gives a few more kids their summers back, I guess I'm for it.

I'll end with a Zen koan in honor of the book:  What is the sound of one hand carrying money to the bank?

Friday, January 21, 2011

I've Seen the Microphone and the Damage Done

Apologies to Neil Young on the title, but if you haven't already guessed, this post concerns the saga of the Jordan-Elbridge School Board and its community.  They're back on the front page again, and are the subject of the lead editorial in today's Syracuse Post-Standard.

I've written on the community's conflict before--here and elsewhere--based in part on my experiences as public comment moderator for one of the early, large (800 plus) public meetings in which some tempers flared, to put it mildly.

Based on that experience and what I have continued to read, here are some additional thoughts--musings in no particular order:

--The news story today by Paul Riede and his colleagues seemed to me to be fair, accurate, and non-inflammatory, but some of the paper's earlier coverage of the controversy--the framing of the narratives and implied conclusions--served to stir up, at least in part, the damaging conflict the paper is decrying on its editorial page.  I've written on this general topic before in this space, but early on I think the paper fanned the flames through its coverage.  To really demonstrate this, I'd need to present a thorough content analysis of all the coverage.  I won't do that--I'll just state that this is my impression based on close reading.  Others may disagree.

--It was my impression at the earlier meeting--and it's my impression based on reading the new story--that the principal in question is enlisting and encouraging some of the protests on the part of others.  Not that many members of the community aren't genuinely angry, all on their own, but I've been to a lot of these kinds of meetings, and that particular antenna in my head was activated that evening.  He went excessively beyond his allotted comment time in the meeting I moderated, with others from the audience yelling that they'd cede their time to him (which is an obviously problematic way to make a decision on that in a group of 800), and he claimed he was entitled to do so because of his position and what was at stake for him personally.  That logic runs out at some point--four months from the October meeting may be that point.  And as I've written before, given the outside investigators that have visited the district, I'm betting there's another shoe to drop here.  We'll see.

--Today's story and editorial point to the tragedy that students are having to witness the emotional excess and the bad blood in the conflict.  I agree, but a deeper level of that tragedy, I think, is the possibility that many of these students are getting drawn into the conflict through mechanisms that would concern me, including parents, teachers, and administrators.  Several students testified at the meeting I moderated, and my sense was that some of the them had been recruited, if not drafted. 

--The paper and a host of other critics are right, however, to point to the direction that the board has taken--toward more restriction and less interaction--as the wrong lesson to draw from the earlier conflict.  It was obvious that this issue would generate public anger and frustration (changes in local education always do)--especially if the grounds for some of the actions cannot be publicly discussed.  In those instances, you need to provide venues for people to express that frustration, and try to make them as constructive as possible.  For all its sharp edges, I left the meeting back in October thinking that some positive things had come from it, and that there was a path forward, if the openness continued and if people could take a breath.  Wishful thinking, apparently.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Buying Local and Local Engagement

Coming up next on the Campbell Conversations is a discussion with Chris Fowler, founder and executive director of SyracuseFirst, a non-profit dedicated to pushing out the "buy local" message.  "Buy local" can mean different things, and Chris parses that out in the interview, but in making the argument for buying local he introduced an idea that really got me thinking, and that I now wish I had pursued more thoroughly.

It's the notion that a community engaged in buying local could become more locally engaged, in civic terms.  This thought sat in between the lines of some of what he said, and at the margins of some of his other comments (about strengthening the local commercial base, for example), but the more I pondered it, the more sense it made to me.  The very process of making the effort to buy local could prompt us to learn about our own area and engage with each other in a way that could lead to further interactions in other spheres, and to a stronger sense of connection with and commitment to our local community.  In other words, we could become better citizens.  Sounds pie-in-the-sky, I know, but it's worth a thought and perhaps a try. 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Climate Change, The Movie II

No, it's not Al Gore.  This YouTube video is a nice companion piece to my Campbell Conversation interview with Dave Eichorn.  Here you can see Dave present visually some of the things he discusses in our conversation.  Truth in advertising:  There's a short pitch for a couple SUNY-ESF courses at the very end.

On 10 Rounds or More

Ruth Marcus has an interesting editorial on the now-expired federal Assault Weapons Ban, in which she focuses on its prohibition of magazines in excess of 10 rounds.  The Tucson shooter used a 31-shot magazine, and the thought is that the ban might have made it more difficult for him to have armed himself so heavily. 

What her column could have emphasized more heavily is that the ban had a grandfather clause--it prohibited the manufacture of such magazines beginning in 1994, and the sale and possession of those magazines; however, the possession and sale of larger magazines made before the ban went into effect remained legal.  New York state law essentially continues the same ban, and so new magazines with capacities larger than 10 and made post-1994 are not legal here.  The ultimate effect of the federal ban between 1994 and 2004, and the continuing ban within New York, is that the prices of these pre-ban magazines have risen, because the supply is limited.  But the magazines are still available.

This illustrates a central quandary for Americans contemplating tighter gun regulations.  The horse has definitely left the barn, a while ago.  To take an overall-supply approach in order to really limit the ability of criminals to get these kinds of guns, particularly in the short-term, restrictions would need to go far beyond the Assault Weapons Ban--focusing on possession as well as manufacture, and leaving out grandfather clauses.  That's very difficult terrain in American politics. 

Evidence suggests that the ban was beginning to have a limiting effect on access to the defined weapons by 2004, and their use in crime (see for example Robert J. Spitzer's book, The Politics of Gun Control), but there remains much controversy over whether it had any demonstrable effect on overall rates of gun crime. 

It's also worth noting that threats of bans are boons to manufacturers and dealers, and increase short-term supply.  There is clear evidence that in the past production and demand have gone up as the perceived "risk" of a possible ban rises, and I'll bet that the purchase of large-capacity magazines will go up if the current discussion of a new ban continues, if it hasn't already (update:  apparently it has).  That will put more of these magazines into circulation as "pre-ban" approved stock, should any future ban result.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Do You Have Ideas About Civilizing Political Talk? Here's How to Share Them

This is in some respects a follow up to my previous post, "Missing Culpa?" 

The plans for the event described below have been in the works for months prior to the Arizona shootings, but if you have ideas for making public conversations about politics more civil and productive--or are just interested in participating in a civil conversation about this topic--please consider joining us on February 18 at the City Hall Commons for this public deliberation event co-sponsored by CNYSpeaks and Focus Syracuse (full disclosure:  I am a co-director of the CNYSpeaks project).  It should be a fruitful and affirming discussion. 

Below is the full press release for the event.

Contacts:                                                                     FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Chuckie Holstein, (315) 448-8732                                     Jan. 12, 2011
Tina Nabatchi, (315) 443-8994

Making Public Meetings Work for the Public: A Forum on Civil Civic Discourse
Work with fellow citizens on February 18 to identify the elements of constructive public forums

Syracuse, NY – Please join us at 7:30 a.m. on Friday, February 18, at City Hall Commons for a forum on how to ensure civil, constructive public meetings.

Combative school board sessions and angry town hall meetings on health care have obscured the fact that public officials and citizens must work together to solve the complex problems we face here in Central New York and across the country.

Yet public officials are given little guidance on just how to structure public meetings to ensure that citizens are heard, and citizens have little guidance about how they should behave at those meetings to ensure that their interests are understood and that the meetings are safe and productive.

On Feb. 18, FOCUS Greater Syracuse will devote its monthly Core Group meeting to exploring this topic, with the goal of hearing from citizens about how they believe public meetings can be better designed to be productive, civil and effective.  

The forum, which is free and open to all, will run from 7:30 to 9 a.m. at City Hall Commons, 201 E. Washington St., Syracuse.

Participants will work in small groups with trained facilitators from the CNYSpeaks Initiative and the Maxwell School’s Program for the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration to discuss questions such as:
·         Why do people go, or stay away from, public meetings?
·         What do public meetings that “work” look like?  What do such meetings accomplish? What processes are used?
·         How should public meetings be designed to be more inclusive, productive and constructive?
·         What are the minimum standards of behavior required of citizens — and officials — to have successful public meetings?

Please join FOCUS and CNYSpeaks as we tackle this important issue, and thank you in advance for helping us spread the word about this event. Again, it’s free and open to all. There is no registration required. The event will start promptly at 7:30 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 18, and be over by 9. Coffee will be served. More information on the sponsoring organizations can be found at and

The public is welcome to contact FOCUS at or (315) 448-8732, or CNYSpeaks at or 315-730-4621, for more information.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Missing Culpa? Some Reflections on the Discussions Surrounding the Shootings

Predictably, the Arizona shootings have occasioned a flood of reconsiderations of our escalated political rhetoric.  Most of it has been directed at the Right, as conservatives tend to employ military and gun-oriented metaphors in their messages more often than those on the Left.  (As I write that, however, I recall being at a political event late one night in 1988 in which a nationally prominent Democrat pretended to shoot a shotgun as he joked about "hunting Quayle.")  But the tone of our political rhetoric is also being questioned more generally, as it should be, even if the actual connection between verbal nastiness and a madman shooting a bunch of people is unprovable and unlikely. 

Moments like these also bring forth efforts by groups and individuals who are committed to certain policy changes, and are constantly looking for opportunities to make their case and move the political dial.  In political science-speak these actors are known as "policy entrepreneurs."  The opportunities that come their way are known as "policy windows," and tragedies often open them up.  So it is that we are now having a renewed discussion of gun control laws, and in particular the demise of the Assault Weapons Ban in 2004. 

But if we're drawing on this tragedy to push issues, even if they are only tangentially related (or completely unrelated) to explaining and understanding why this event happened--and could have happened--then I want to add this one to the mix.  It's also time to renew our concern over the way political information is presented to citizens through traditional media outlets.  A host of research has demonstrated that over the past years, media coverage of politics, elected officials, and government--print and broadcast--has become both less substantive and more negative, focusing on supposed personal motivations and calculations at the expense of the facts and issues, and increasingly concentrating on misdeeds and mistakes. 

What concerns me in particular here is the tone of complete disdain that pervades much of the treatment.  I wouldn't begin to try to connect that to a shooting--and I want to underline that I'm not doing that--but it's increasingly difficult to perceive public officials as being public servants, even human beings, if all one has to go by is what's readily available in the media.  Our local paper's treatment of the life and career of William Walsh was a noticeable and welcome departure from the tone of many earlier stories and editorials about government and politicians. 

If we're going to have a reset and a rethink, it needs to include this as well.  It's part of the context in which we think and talk about governance.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Feature Guest Post -- An Outsider-to-Insider View of the State Budget Crisis and State Employees: The Civil Premium

The following is a guest post by Michael O'Bryan.  Michael is an Investigator with the state's Labor Department.  Prior to that, he was Director of the Solutions Delivery Group at AppliedTheory Corporation.  He's also worked for AT&T.  Michael is married to a NYS employee, and lives in Manlius, New York.

I have been a Civil servant since July 20, 2009. I work with people who have all been doing their respective jobs for far longer than me.
New York State inaugurated Andrew Cuomo this week, and my fellow State employees and I are waiting for the real impact of the new administration to be delivered.
What’s more than a little weird for me is the calmness I feel with the reality that some soulless, faceless administrator will send a message, or initiate a process, that will snuff out some meaningful number of jobs – and the lives that are connected to them. I’m calm from having lived through this going back as far as the early ‘90’s. The “outside world”, as I describe it to my state brethren, has been like this for some time.
Even though there have been layoffs of state workers before (oddly enough in the previous Cuomo administration), the insecurity associated with impending force reductions is alien to folks who started with the state after the ‘80’s. These employees have devoted their careers to the navigation of the Civil Service world. If nothing else, the overall structure provided a level of certainty that made other aspects of government work (like lower average wages) tolerable. They have benefited from Civil Service. What was once a rigid structure in a job-rich outside economy has evolved into a premium of protection. The Civil Service premium.
But now, as we are all being told, “everything has to be on the table”. And the ruthlessness of corporate efficiency and economies of scale is about to be applied to a population of workers who are by and large ill-equipped to manage it. This is not about Union vs. Management so much as it is about the erosion of a culture. Being new to it all, I can see the opportunities for process improvement, the need for operational behavior changes, and the woefully inadequate state of technology. But in fairness to the members of both management and non-management, there has never been any necessity, much less incentive, for change. Until the last 2 – 3 years, anyway.
I hope Governor Cuomo can establish some credibility as he goes about his transformation of the state bureaucracy. I wonder how he will gain credibility with the Unions, as he will undoubtedly place connected colleagues in $100K+ Director / Commissioner positions that are pure patronage. I wonder how he will gain credibility with Management, as he goes about forcing more work on lower level Managers and Assistant Directors, due to the fact that functional positions have been eliminated while the work has remained.
And I truly wonder about his ability to be credible to a Legislature as profoundly dysfunctional and corrupt as New York’s. Our current Legislature is likely 3 – 5 overall terms away from the necessary turnover that would begin to break down the fiefdoms, on both sides of the aisle, that contribute mightily to the state’s current condition.
The people doing the real work will be the population that will face the real requirements to change their day-to-day working behaviors. They will be the ones who will have no choice but to change. And they will do it, as they are the ones, who actually deliver services; who drive disabled people to the doctor; who process registrations; who help people find jobs; who investigate fraud; who teach your kids; who inspect bridges; and, even those who collect taxes.
While people who will never have to worry about their own retirement circumstances rail on about state worker pensions, keep that in mind. There is more that needs fixing in New York than what will be solved by firing working people.

Feature Guest Post -- Congressional Food Fight in a Floundering Economy

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."  Maria has contributed to the blog before--see "Lingering Questions" in December's posts.

After a Congressional battle that’s lasted for the better part of a century, President Obama signed the food safety bill into law on January 4, 2011.
Although an Associated Press tally reports that the economy looks healthier than in recent years (the growth in bankruptcies across the nation slowed considerably in 2010 since the recession), it hardly looks fit to take on the $1.4 billion required to make this legislation a reality.  This is doubly true in light of the new GOP-led Congress.
GOP Opposition to Food Expert Insistence
Georgia Republican Rep. Jack Kingston, who will head the Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the FDA’s budget, said to Bloomberg, “There’s a high possibility of trimming this whole package back.”  He adds, “[I]f not for the wonderful nanny-state politicians, we’d be getting sick after every meal, the system we have is doing a dark good job.”
The CDC holds numbers that leave the sentiment up for a judgment call: 1 in 6 people fall ill from food they consume, 128,000 visit the hospital for said illness, and 3,000 die from it.
Kingston repeatedly claims that the number of cases of pathogen-caused illnesses does not justify the cost of President Obama’s new law.
“We still have a food supply that’s 99.99 percent safe,” he told The Washington Post, although one wonders from where he procured such a number.  “No one wants anybody to get sick, and we should always strive to make sure food is safe.  But the case for a $1.4 billion expenditure isn’t there.”
Hmm, 3,000 lives ain’t quite enough, eh?
Meanwhile, Erik Olson, director of Food and Consumer Product Safety Programs of the Pew Health Group, disagrees.  “The costs of not implementing the law are staggering,” he says, citing the projected health costs of foodborne illnesses: an annual $152 billion.
Without the $1.4 billion, former associate commissioner of food of the FDA Dr. David Acheson says, “the public health impact of the new legislation will be compromised.”
What the Legislation Entails
As it currently stands, the legislation demands the following improvements among others not listed here:
·         The FDA will have the license to order a mandatory recall of “dangerous” food.  In the past, the FDA could only request that manufacturers deal with the matter by pulling the contaminated food off of store shelves.
·         In addition to responding to contaminations, the FDA will work to prevent them.
·         The food safety agency will announce scientifically-founded standards for safe food production and harvesting.
·         An increased number of certified inspectors and investigators will be made available to increase the frequency of restaurant and other food facility inspections. 
·         The FDA will have tighter control and increased authority to inspect imported foods. 
Legislation a Step, Not Cure-All
Acheson adds that while the legislation will be a milestone in public health and the food industry, it alone will not stop recalls or foodborne illnesses.  “No legislation could do that,” he admits.  “As we improve with epidemiological and molecular tools, I predict we will see more recalls and not less in the coming years.  Ultimately, if the regulations are sound and the programs adequately funded and enforced, then we may see a gradual reduction.”
No part of this legislation is suspected of coming cheaply—an increased number of trained and certified staff being a key fund-eater.  Still, at what cost comes the health of a nation’s people?  The hospital bills of uninsured lower-income families will only add up to their existing debt, and if the government could spend literally 108 times the proposed $1.4 billion just to care for the people whose pain and suffering by the way cannot be fiscally compensated, why not take the precautionary step?  Isn’t that kind of like being too cheap to buy toothpaste and then wondering why you’re paying up the nose after getting all your rotten teeth pulled out by the dentist?  Isn’t the $1.4 billion, in fact, a sort of insurance policy for the American people and the food industry?  Oh, right, Kingston doesn’t believe in affordable health care, either.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Where Dave Valesky Might Lose Out

Interesting news recently about our local state senator, Dave Valesky, joining three others to form a new Independent-Democratic caucus.  There's been a lot of speculation about why he's doing this just now, and what effect it might have on his effectiveness.

I think the idea that this is a politically strategic effort to demonstrate a commitment to reform after a close shave in the elections is off the mark.  For Valesky to have won by over six percent, in this year--when three of his incumbent Democratic colleagues from the same area lost (Stirpe, Maffei, and Arcuri)--against a quality challenger in Andrew Russo, and with all the money that was spent, suggests that he is probably a safe bet from here on  out, absent a dramatic downfall.  The Democrats losing their majority status in the chamber strengthens that view, as the Downstate-control argument is now defused, at least as it relates to his re-election.

How the move will affect him in the chamber is less clear, given--again--that his party is now in the minority.  One could imagine the independence playing to his advantage or disadvantage, depending on how the Republican majority approaches the term.

One place where I think it's likely to hurt regardless, however, is access to inside information, a critical element in any legislature.  Not being part of a major party caucus will make it much more difficult for him to know what's coming and what is being planned.  Fewer people will confide in him.  His effectiveness may thus depend more on his ability to deftly react to what comes his way, rather than to strategically plan ahead and shape the agenda.  Again, depending on how the chamber functions (or dysfunctions), this could land him in a prime spot, but all other things being equal the Albany part of his job will be tougher with more limited information.

Double-Dippers "R" Us

Two high-profile local double-dippers have generated lots of buzz and heat about collecting retirement while earning a second salary--in one case for the same job, no less.  In an editorial with the sarcastic title "Thanks, Voters," the local paper chastised the county sheriff and suggested that his behavior was, in the end, no surprise, presumably because he was a politician--"Sure enough, within a week of winning election to an unprecedented fifth term, Walsh filed his retirement papers."  (And this after just endorsing him over two challengers for that fifth term.)  With the citizens sufficiently ginned up, angry letters to the editor poured in. 

Now it turns out that the deputy mayor did not get the necessary approval from the state to earn a full salary while on retirement from the fire department.

Granted, both of these cases are problematic, and the context for much of the anger is of course the difficult economy. 

But it bears noting that the country is awash in people who have put in their 20 years in the public sector and then used that experience to jump-start a second career in the private and non-profit sectors, or in other public sector jobs--while still enjoying their "retirements".  Perhaps the single biggest pool of these folks is the former military, especially retired officers.  Washington is chock-full of consultants, analysts, and managers from these ranks.  Private contract defense analysis is in large part an extension of the military retirement program.  And for some folks, not making full colonel was the best thing that ever happened to them financially.

Is this system right?  I think the central question here is whether the shorter time to full retirement is fair.  A lot of these jobs are high-stress, some are quite dangerous, and a lot of people in these jobs probably could have made more money in the private sector.  On the other hand, those contributing significant chunks of their income to defined contribution (versus benefit) plans, and waiting until 67 or beyond to even think about anything we would recognize as "retirement," have some reason to be miffed.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Doffing the Cap?

Consideration of a property tax cap is obviously going to be front and center in the upcoming struggle to balance the budget and reset the state's financial system.  It was one of the few specific policy changes Governor Cuomo chose to mention in his inauguration speech, and it will likely be a centerpiece in his State of the State Address tomorrow. 

Cuomo's property tax proposal is tougher and more wide-reaching than previously considered options, such as the Suozzi's commission's 4 percent cap on school district tax hikes. 

It brings up so many important and vexing political and policy issues, but one I find most intriguing is the wisdom and efficacy of governments--and the people--tying themselves to the mast in order to force themselves to achieve a broader, long-term goal--in this case flattening the spending curve.  Does such a move undermine the very point of democratic politics?  And how tightly must you tie yourself?  In some ways, it reminds me of term limits, but here it's "stop me before I spend again" instead of "stop me before I vote again."

In this case, the wiggle-room is found in super-majorities--60 percent of town and city residents could vote to override the cap within their own municipality.  So there is a democratic cap on the cap.  There are also other specific exceptions, including some state-mandated programs at the county level.

This issue will be worth following, and if you're looking for a good background overview of it, Paul Riede supplied a very nice summary of the proposal and the debate surrounding it last December in the Post-Standard.  You can find it here.