Soda Schmoda

Another interesting item in school news. ExPrez Bill Clinton has brokered a deal with the soft drinks industry to pull soda pop out of the nation’s schools by 2009-10.

Here’s a little Duluth backstory to this:

Last night I was talking to a former high school principal and he mentioned this in regards to our efforts to raise money for the Duluth Public Schools Endowment.

While he and I were with the District we were always scrambling for funds. Former Board member Pati Rolf, a strong advocate for healthy living, once pushed to have soda pop vending machines removed from the schools and for good reason. Soda pop (along with other high sugar and high fat foods) is leading to an epidemic of obesity in children with a resultant spike in diabetes, heart disease etc, etc, etc.

Some people may shrug this off as liberal whining but there’s no question that our government subsidized agricultural and food processing industries are plying us with food so that we are stuffing it down our faces like never before.

The talk of banning vending machines raised the hackles of all three of our high school principals. They discourage in the strongest terms from doing this. All our high schools have arrangements with soft drinks suppliers to split soda sales with the schools. The School Board’s concern about our children’s health threatened their ability to give children after school programs. What a two edged sword! (For crying out loud speech and debate has all but disappeared in the Duluth Schools!)

Our local bottler Bernicks set up a ten-year deal to supply soda to the schools in return for $30,000 to help furnish and equip Public School Stadium. How can we renege on that deal?

Time will tell what will happen locally or even nationally but I can’t help but think this is a good and worthwhile effort. Believe it or not when I went to High School we only had an apple and milk vending machine if memory serves me correctly. But then, my memory isn’t what it used to be.

Pension Schmension

This story pricked up my ears yesterday. It was reported that several of Minnesota’s public employee retirement funds were underfunded by almost 10 billion dollars.

I’m always nervous when benefits are mandated by law as they are in Social Security and Medicare, without regard to future availability of funds to pay for them.

When I was elected to the Duluth School Board I made it a point to ask the Director of the Duluth Teachers Retirement fund about how it guaranteed its member’s pensions. As a fellow who sold annuities briefly in the private sector (I was a lousy salesman) I was aware that there are a few fairly simple methods of disbursing money to people from the lump sums that they have built up during their work years by the time of retirement.

Retirees can take a fixed amount of money for a specific time, say twenty years. This monthly amount paid out will not change whether inflation does or not. The payments are calculated in advance to last until the fund peters out and they are guaranteed. Because the payments are time limited they can be larger.

Retirees who do not want to gamble on the length of their life can set up an annuity which will last until the end of their life. Of course, the retirement fund managing such a pension has to presume a long life for people choosing this payment option. (I recall the story from a few years ago about the death of a French woman who fifty years before had agreed to sell her house to another buyer for a fixed price. She would be allowed to continue living in her home, however, until her death. Unfortunately for the buyers the woman lived to be 112 years old. She outlived them and they were never able to take possessioin of the house that they had paid for. Pension Funds can’t allow themselves to get caught short that way) Pension funds granted for the remainder of a recipient’s life are considerably smaller than time limited annuities.

The problem I’ve seen with the T (teachers) RA, PE (public employees) RA, and the Duluth, Minneapolis, and St. Paul Teacher RA’s (retirement funds) is that they often pay their recipeints more when their stock earnings are good but do not reduce payment levels when their earnings diminish leaving a shortfall with regard to their future obligations. The results for over-generous funds can be disasterous. The Duluth and St. Paul Teachers Retirement Funds have both strongly resisted being combined by the State legislature with the Minneapolis teacher’s fund for just this reason.

The state is not required to shore up profligate and overgenerous retirement funds. Nonetheless, it might be strongly tempted to shore up a weak fund with state taxes in order to tempt resistant retirement funds to merge with and thus bolster the mismanaged funds with their own better managed assets. 

I was so shocked by the implication in the second to the last paragraph of the story that I called its author and asked him if he could confirm what I thought it said:

“The Public Employees Retirement Association fund agreed to raise contributions by cities, counties and workers to reduce its deficit. The government contributions are expected to cost $380 million over the next five years. Increased contributions are also under consideration for the pension plan for state workers.

This makes it sound like the PERA can force municipalities to give them more money to make up for their poor investment decisions. What? Funds can be demanded without resorting to contract negotiations! This is much like the bind that the City of Duluth is in with regard to the post retirement benefits of its workers.

Duluth may have the option of declaring bankruptcy if it can’t cope any other way. Could PERA put other municipalities in the same position? Would bankruptcy be available to the state of Minnesota in a worst case scenario? Full faith and credit to the person answering these questions.

Tech Schmeck

One consequence of the Minnesota’s fall from 5th in per-pupil spending to 23rd has been a lack of funds to keep our state’s schools up to date in technical training. Even now Duluth Denfeld is asking its grads for money to pay for something called “smart books” which must be some kind of technological gizmo. In the short run this may not be a problem as this story in the Minneapolist Trib reports:

“the report says nothing about a link between technology and student achievement. In fact, the report’s authors acknowledge that many of the lowest-scoring states on this list have some of the highest student test scores.

And some of the top-scoring technology states — such as West Virginia and Arkansas — have a tradition of struggling schools.”

Still, over time, lapses like this will have an impact. Repeat the Republican mantra after me, “No new taxes, no new taxes, know gnu Texas.”

Breakfast with a convict

Last year I wrote a column about an ancient local political scandal involving Jim Oberstar’s questionable funding sources for his 1974 campaign. I mentioned Don Boyd, a fellow who was accused of, but never found guilty of, embezzling a million dollars from the government. A few days after my column hit the stands I got an email from Don suggesting that we meet over a cup of coffee. He’d written a book. He did spend time in prison but not for stealing a million bucks. (There’s always something a fellow can be found guilty if you’ve got the help of a willing perjurer)

Sitting in prison and having his family’s honor tarred gave Don a lot to reflect on. If Don was innocent, as I rather suspect he was there could be a good book in it.

Unfortunately, Don hasn’t written it. His head is too full of details and at six or seven hundred pages no one but a crank like me would ever read or publish it. So I’ve decided to give him a hand. I’ll have more to say about this in my next Northland Reader column. Let the chips fall where they may.

Divided day

My day was split in two by a mile swim. It began with two dozen folks learning how to raise money for the Duluth Schools Endowment followed by swimming then the fine arts.

I went to my second dance class with Claudia and worked on the rhumba and the waltz. I rushed off after that for three hours of rehearsal with the Duluth Superior Symphony Chorus. The Verdi Requiem we will be singing is coming along. Tonight we practiced with the symphony.

Tomorrow I’ll need to call or email our fund raising participants to keep the fire burning but I’ll begin the day with my convict. I’m strongly inclined to write a book for him on the Internet. I can’t prove it but I strongly believe Jim Oberstar and crew set this guy up to take a fall thirty years ago for their theft of public property to use for political purposes. Its a dirty shame if its true and I hope I’m up to the task of writing a book.


Presidential Karma

I traded emails over the White House Coorespondent’s dinner with a friend. My last thought was that whether Stephen Colbert’s routine was appropriate or not in some ways it struck me as a kind of political karma. George Bush has been in his famous bubble for so long that it seemed he had completely tuned out his critics. Keeping that frustration pent up as he did it was bound to burst out somewhere to restore the equilibrium and Colbert took on that assignment.

Lots of Colbert’s admirers, and I’m one of them, applaud him for having the courage to dish it out. I’m sure it did especially as the laughs petered out. On the other hand, beating up on Bush meant beating up a defenseless man. Decorum dictated that Bush take Colbert’s pummeling without complaint of the ability to defend himself. Picking on a defenseless man is never considered particularly courageous.

So there you have it. Karma.

Bush Roasted till his skin peels off

I just watched some of the most painful video I’ve ever seen. Stephen Colbert was asked to give the keynote speech at the National Press Club’s roast of the President. It was very witty but it was so relentlessly sarcastic that the laughs petered out as the audience realized Colbert was the little boy crying out that King Bush was naked.

If you hate George Bush you will be gratified. If you like Bush you will be disgusted. As angry as I am with the President I could never tell him he’s a dolt to his face like Colbert did.

You’ve been forewarned:

Leveling the playing field

I heard it said today on NPR that if the Democrats can’t take Congress back this year they’ll never do it. It’s not too soon to think about what comes after this election for Democrats and I have some suggestions. Republicans have been methodical in taking back the country and Democrats pushed programs notably Civil Rights and the Great Society that were guaranteed to lose them part of their old New Deal coalition. The first cost them southern white voters and the latter cost them votes across the nation from people who thought a welfare society would ruin America.

The steady abandonment of the Democratic Party for the GOP’s smaller government was masked by Watergate which gave the Democrats an artificial boost in popularity but Ronald Reagan’s nostrums and surprisingly successful presidency put the Republicans back on track. It’s evident that it will take a while for Democrats to figure out what their message is. Fortunately for them, George Bush’s retrillionization of the National Debt has badly muddled the Republican message which means that for the moment the public is open to change.

Here’s my first suggestion. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Tom DeLay broke precedent to have Texas reapportioned along Republican friendly lines mid-decade. If the Democrats succeed in taking over legislatures in key states these new legislatures should be encouraged to do the same with Democrats controlling the process. Texas’s reapportionment led to a six seat pick up for Republicans. Democrats might be able to do the same in a number of other states. I’ve heard people speculate that Pennsylvania could be a particularly good target for the Dems. While I was appalled at the DeLay/Texas shenanigans it’s apparent that the parties are in an all-out war. Democrats can not give any quarter on this while they have a chance turn the tables on the GOP. I would prefer that some new non-partisan mechanism for reapportionment be instituted after the next decennial census and that may require a constitutional amendment. If this ploy works, however, don’t expect the Democrats to give it up anytime soon.

My second suggestion involves the issue of voting eligibility. The background: Republicans have been sticklers for the rules on voting. For instance, in the last Presidential election they sent Texas lawyers to places like Duluth to make sure that in highly Democratic precincts only people who could unequivocally prove their eligibility would be allowed to vote. When voters (most of whom were probably qualified to vote even though they didn’t have documentation) were shepherded into the polls by people prepared to vouch for them those lawyers aggressively objected if the eligibility laws weren’t absolutely adhered to. It didn’t change the outcome in Minnesota but it might have in Ohio. Democrats have to insure that these voters will not be turned away. I’d start by pushing state legislatures to give ex-prisoners the right to vote. I’d argue that our society has always believed that law breakers serve their time and that once they are released they should not face continuing punishment. In the United States our voting franchise is a fundamental right. Being denied full citizenship is a continuation of one’s punishment. It deprives ex-cons of their full stake in the nation’s future and perhaps even some of the incentive to redeem themselves.

While we no long make much of a pretense of rehabilitating prisoners we still operate under the idea that jail time allows prisoners to “pay their debt to society.” To further persecute these citizens by prolonging their debt for political advantage after their release is bad faith. Since these millions of voters may look favorably on the political party which demands that their rights be restored we might expect a few marginally red states to switch to blue. My third suggestion involves a gross violation of the voting franchise. Residents of our nation’s capital are denied voting representation in the halls of Congress. Whatever the nation’s founders thought when they designated the swamp along the Potomac as our new capitol, worrying about its voters was purely theoretical. The first settlers were mostly residents of other states who cast their votes elsewhere.

By the time that the native population of the District of Columbia emerged powerful southern Democrats had no interest in giving them any representation in Congress because most were African American. The South denied blacks the vote back home and they had no incentive to do anything differently in the Nation’s Capitol. Times have changed. The only good argument to prevent giving D.C. residents Congressional representation is feeble: that D.C. is not a state. Yet D.C. residents are American citizens and pay taxes. They were born into a nation whose rallying cry was “no taxation without representation.” Their disenfranchisement is unconscionable.

The practical but unsaid argument for denying D.C. residents voting representation in Congress is that they vote for Democrats. Since the southern democrats have become Republicans they’ve clung to their old objections only now it’s because or party politics rather than race. If the Democrats forced a national debate on this issue the Republicans would be hard pressed to deny the legacy of racism that their ”no votes for D.C.” position rests upon. After these or similar measures are taken to level the playing field for Democrats the Dems can figure out just where they want to take the nation. I hope for my sake its somewhere in the center. The Republicans, after all, have abandoned much of this space and a vacuum demands to be filled. Let’s make sure the Republicans don’t repopulate it first after 2006.

What’s Sauce for the Goose

Regarding my post on Rush Limbaugh a friend emailed me this comment:

Harry…part of your presentation…causes me to think of a possible parallel presentation that would include a picture of Teddy Kennedy, the corpse of Mary Jo Kopechne, the bridge at Chappaquiddick, and a bottle of booze; with the captions, This is your DFL brain, and This is your DFL brain on drugs.  One of my dad’s sayings was that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.  However, I prefer total abstention from inappropriate comment, so that there would be no motivation for retaliation in kind.”

I don’t disagree. Nothing infuriated Republicans more during the Chappaquiddik Bridge incident than the absolute unwillingness of Massachusetts Democrats to abandon Teddy Kennedy after his craven act of cowardice. That kind of blind support reminds me of the similar support of “Dittoheads” for Limbaugh and. What’s more, Limbaugh didn’t cause anyone’s death.  Part of the price Kennedy has paid for Chappaquiddick is never being permitted to carry on the Kennedy legacy beyond the Senate. Ironically, he has been a serious Senator since that scandal perhaps to atone for fecklessly throwing away his reputation and Mary Jo’s life. The Democrats have also paid a price. Whenever they wanted to point to Republicans as being anti-women Republicans had only to point to Kennedy and Mary Jo to demonstrate their hypocrisy. Ditto for Clinton and his intern. 



King George

Andrew Sullivan calls it his “King George watch.” What he’s watching is the President’s constant usurpation of Congressional and judicial powers. Sullivan speculates that the reason Bush hasn’t bothered vetoing any bills is because he simply administers the law the way he sees fit. The Boston Globe reports that so far Bush has disobeyed 750 laws.

Maybe America needs a Magna Carta. Then again, maybe a good old fashioned impeachment would do the trick. Declaring a war based on questionable intelligence is not a high crime or misdemeanor. Running the war incompetently isn’t one either. Neither is letting your bumbling, bullying, Secretary of Defense take over the portfolio of Secretary of Scapegoat. But ignoring his office’s Constitutional requirement to enforce the laws of Congress……well that may be sufficient grounds. It was enough to impeach Andrew Johnson.

Readers in the Trash

I went swimming this morning and noticed on entering the fitness center that the stack of Readers was gone a mere two days after having been put there. Then I noticed a half dozen Readers stuffed in the trash across the hallway.

As My pointed column about abortion led off the Reader my paranoia kicked in. I figured that I’d offended someone enough so that they decided to censor me. At least that’s what I wanted to imagine. I pulled them out of the trash and put them back on the reading rack.

I swam with more vigor than usual afterwards.

Stacking the Republican House-of-Cards Deck

How is it that Republicans so easily control Congress? Will their house of cards blow over? Before 1954 when state’s were able to apportion (divide up) legislative districts without having to create legislative districts with equal numbers of voters it was easy for the rural party to stay in control. When it came time to draw up legislative districts, after the ten year Census, they simply created small population rural districts and large population urban districts. If, for instance, a state had 51 rural districts with one-third of the state’s population in them and 49 urban districts with two-thirds of the states population in them farmers with one-third of the state’s votes would control the state legislatures. 

The Supreme Court took much of the rural advantage in state legislative reapportionments away in 1954 by ruling that states had to create voting districts with equal populations. The doctrine was called “one-man-one-vote.” This assured that cities began to run the state legislature and since urban areas tended to be Democratic strongholds it meant Democrats enjoyed a generation of control of many legislative bodies including the US. House of Representatives. A generation later suburban and exurban areas which had sprouted since that 1954 ruling began to change the political alchemy as those residents were much less inclined to be Democratic. For the past decade Republicans have assured themselves control of Congress even though the voting public is split evenly 30% Republican, 30 % Democrat, 30% independent? If Republicans are in control of a legislature after the census they draw up Democratic districts which tend to be 80% Democratic, 20% Republican. The Republican seats however, give themselves districts that are 60% Republican and 40% Democratic which in normal years is still pretty safe, especially for an incumbent. 

You can see the strategy on a map. By allowing rural red areas to poach just enough urban blue democratic votes to pad the rural districts Republicans get more districts. Of course when Democrats are in control of the legislature they do just the opposite and poach just enough rural Republican votes to pad their urban Democratic districts leaving fewer heavily concentrated Republican districts. This strategy, however, puts the party on top at peril when the voting public gets upset because the people in power are more vulnerable during a landslide. 

For instance this year while even the most unpopular Democrat is unlikely to lose when fellow Democrats compose 80% of his district’s voters a Republican with only 60% of his voters being Republican could easily see a 10% swing putting him in a 50%-50% race. Right now Congress’s approval rating is hovering at about 25% and it’s easy to forecast lots of 50/50 congressional races. The swing comes largely from the 30% of voters who consider themselves independent. Right now independents have very little patience with Republicans. When the Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994 they were in a similar position.  Three months of high summer gas prices, lingering bad news in Iraq, and Republicans divided on whether to court Hispanic votes or send 11 million illegals packing to Mexico are just a few of the irritations that will likely be on voters minds next November. A lot of those 60/40 Republican districts will be 50/50. No wonder the Democrats are feeling their oats. We Democrats that is. Any one for Oatmeal?

The official source for all the blather of the eccentric Harry Welty – Duluth School Board member, off and on, since 1995. He does his best to live up to Mark Twain's assessment: "First God created the idiot. That was for practice. Then he invented the School Board."