Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Kitzhaber got a lot of scratch from the health care industry

What sticks out to me is that 30% of Kitzhabers funds come from the health care industry.  Normally when you see an industry give gobs of money to a politician there is a reason- like how the next governor will be instrumental in implementing the national health insurance reforms.  Kitzh may be a decent guy and the contributions could be entirely circumstantial (he probably knows a lot of hospital CEO's), but still this doesn't look good.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Followup on Oregonian article

Jeff Alworth picked up on the Oregonian story about the state budget problems.  He mostly picks over causation- are public employee benefits to blame, did we spend too much in 2007, is the kicker at fault...  I'm disappointed with the discussion.  What it boils down to is defend employee benefits, defend democrats, and attack the kicker.  Only the last of those addresses balancing the budget, and that has virtually no chance of passing in time to affect the next biennium.

This is all dancing around the issue, which is that a lot of cutting is going to happen.  How should government agencies make those cuts?  How should the public be involved?  There is time to figure those things out, but only if we try.  The alternative is what we saw with PPS recently- the school board looking like deer caught in the headlights for weeks on end, arbitrary cuts that elicit mass public opposition but no alternatives...  Basically crap government (PPS still hasn't passed a reality-based balanced budget, the school year begins in 6 weeks).  Is that really how this has to play out?

State Budget

The Oregonian began a sobering series on the Oregon state budget outlook for the upcoming biennium. 

The money quote:

For decades, we put ourselves at the same status level as Washington, our wealthier sister to the north. Now, Tapogna says, 'we are beginning to look a lot more like Idaho.'

The article put the magic number at 3.7 Billion, that is the gap to be filled by either tax increases or spending cuts. Given political realities, it is extremely unlikely significant tax increases will be passed. That leads to the question: How do we determine where spending will be cut? I’m assuming there is not $3.7B of “fat” in the budget. Therefore at some point we will have to tell someone who depends on state funding that they will have to make do with less. How do we pick who?

I ask because I believe this to be THE issue for the next legislative session and governor. How effectively that question is answered is how effectively state government will function, perhaps for years to come.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

For-Profit College=Monster?

per the Economist.  I don't understand their criticism.  If students are abusing education loans and taking on too much debt, maybe the government shouldn't lend them so much money?  I don't see how that is the responsibility of the colleges.

More broadly, the article casts aspersions because the for-profits are picking up excess demand that community colleges can't meet.  Why is this a bad thing?  Would the world be better if students unable to go to community college had nowhere to go?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

David Cameron

When Obama was elected I expected a radical break with policies of the past, a wholesale rejection of the Bush regime and the cynicism that underlie it.  What a disappointment.  Britain appears to have embarked on a far more ambitious course.  What stood out to me:
If successful, it will lift what the new leaders say is the state’s
heavy hand on public life, restricting its reach into schools and
hospitals, slashing welfare benefits and reviewing intrusive
law-and-order Labour programs that have alarmed advocates for civil

This is the first time I've seen anyone in power, conservative or liberal, challenge the primacy of national security.  The economics may be shady, but anyone who takes civil liberties seriously gets a star in my book.  On the other side of the balance sheet there is this from Labor:
Weakened and divided by its May election defeat and temporarily
rudderless as it awaits the election this fall of a new leader to
succeed Mr. Brown, Labour has resolved to halt many of the changes by
all means possible.

Sounds an awful lot like the GOP.  That isn't a  compliment.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Anna Griffin on Oregon Unions

Anna Griffin put out a sharp column criticizing public employee unions in Oregon and particularly Portland.  The short version:
Back before government started regulating industry and muckraking
reporters decided that 18-hour workdays weren't healthy, union
organizers were the true reformers.

They kept factories safe,
made whistle-blowing possible and generally looked out for the little


Yet public employee unions now seem to block change more than promote

How fair is this?  Griffin cites four examples to back up her claim.

First, deputies and corrections officers stopped Multnomah County from changing the County Sheriff's position to one appointed instead of being elected.  That qualifies as blocking change, but is it blocking a reform?  That looks more to me like a turf battle, the kind that afflicts any large bureaucracy.  Ted Wheeler wanted a sheriff subordinate to the county commission, the sheriff and his people wanted to retain independence.  Where is the reform?

Second, Portland police and civilian oversight.  Griffin is on firm ground here, sadly.  The union under Westerman was nuts and an emarrassment to the city.  I give this one to Griffin with an asterisk for the fact that union leadership makes a big difference, for better or for worse.

Third Griffin cites the Portland teachers union for balking at reopening their contract and accepting a salary freeze.  The union may be harming the public good, but I don't see this is a reform issue.  I've heard of many large corporations where there was no union and management unilaterally announced wage freezes.  That may have been for the good of the company but was it reform in any meaningful sense?  Griffin could actually make a much better case against the teachers.  They oppose switching class schedules from a 5/7 (teach 5 out of 7 periods and take 2 for prep) to a 6/8.  The 6/8 allows more total sections and increases the potential offerings of a school without increasing cost, it is also the norm in the metro region outside of PPS.  There is also the union's opposition to charter schools.  Either of those make a more compelling case for obstructing reform then seeking higher wages.  I'll give a point here because the teachers union is obstructing reform, even if it isn't for the reasons Griffin gives.

Finally, Griffin cites state employees for opposing cuts in benefits.  At first blush this looks like a fight over pay, like the teachers union issue above.  However I think the pension issue deserves special consideration.  The pension plan essentially acts as deferred compensation, it allows the state and municipalities to put people on the payroll now and pay later.  That is a terrible practice policy wise, it allows agencies to avoid balancing their budget and saddle future taxpayers with deferred compensation payments.  I'd say ending that constitutes reform.  The fight over health care benefits is not as that is paid up front.  So half a point here.

Griffin says that 3 points make a trend, by that measure she comes up short at 2.5.  I wish she used a finer brush in painting her criticism of the unions.  There are real problems that have to be confronted, using loose rhetoric doesn't make that task easier.

Monday, July 19, 2010

POW: Clay Shirkey

I just got around to listening to a very good lecture by Clay Shirky sponsored by LSE.  Shirky discusses his concept of "Cognitive Surplus".  The gist of it is that by converting a small sliver of the time otherwise spent watching TV (passively consuming) into active creation we are able to reap enormous benefits.  For example, the total number of all hours spent creating wikipedia is less then the time we spend watching commercials on any given weekend. 

The internet thus far has provided mostly private benefits.  Those interested in a particular topic are empowered to discover and create content virtually cost free, excluding time.  That isn't a bad thing, but what Shirky looks forward to is projects with a global impact- voluntary collaborative efforts that fundamentally change cultures.

This was an entertaining and interesting lecture, I strongly recommend it.

Fans of Shirky's work can find an Econtalk interview from 2008 here.