Thursday, May 27, 2010

Rants, I've Had A Few

The Opinion pages in yesterday's Wall Street Journal offered such a treasure trove of riches that it's difficult to even know where to begin.

How about a timely and much needed editorial on the Politics of the Oil Spill:

This Obama finger-pointing has, if anything, backfired politically. The oil spill was an opportunity for Mr. Obama--who campaigned as someone who likes to wrap his mind around "complex" problems--to remind the country that energy exploration and engineering are not error-free disciplines. The U.S. oil industry has a remarkable safety record, even as it has moved into deeper and deeper water to provide the U.S. with affordable oil. But no industry is accident free, and Mr. Obama could have served the public better by explaining the technical challenges of fixing this deep water leak. His decision to pound on BP for not performing immediate miracles has instead fed the public's expectations that this is like plugging a hole in a swimming pool.

I found President Obama's anger about all the finger-pointing and redirecting blame that the companies did when they were hauled before Congress a couple of weeks ago to explain why the oil spill happened amusing. What did he expect them to do under the circumstances? They hadn't even stopped the leak (and still haven't) and the politicians were already demanding that they determine precisely who was responsible for what with billions of dollars in potential liabilities hanging in the balance.

Unfortunately, the performance of the GOP hasn't been much better:

Republicans have also done the nation no favors in their political rush to turn this oil spill into Mr. Obama's "Katrina." In an attempt to tie the disaster to the Administration, they've targeted the Minerals Management Service, suggesting agency bureaucrats weren't tough enough on Big Oil.

Never mind that there is zero evidence so far that this blowout resulted from lax regulation or shoddy practices. Never mind, too, that the GOP is targeting one of the few federal agencies that happens to believe in more domestic energy production.

Sarah Palin also didn't help the cause of public understanding by attacking Mr. Obama as too close to BP because he received campaign contributions from the company. Does she think such frivolous partisanship will further the cause of domestic oil production?

While I can understand the Republicans desire to hang the oil spill around President Obama's neck the way the Democrats and helpful media partners hung Katrina on Bush, it seems like a short-term political gain at the expense of a long-term erosion of principals. When Republicans say that President Obama hasn't done enough to stop the oil spill or prevent environmental damage they're reinforcing the assumption that government can and should fix everything. Instead of explaining that sometimes bad things happen and no matter how much money you spend or how much authority you give it, government can't always prevent them from happening and can't always magically make everything better, Republicans are buying in to the public's expectation that government is the ultimate solution and that if anything bad ever happens it must somehow be blamed on a failure of that government. And as we've painfully learned in the past, the response to government failures isn't less government, but more.

Next up is Randall Bloomquist's review of Bill Press' book Toxic Talk:

Surely Mr. Press, a former chairman of the California Democratic Party, understands all this. So why write a book bemoaning the "threat" and "corrosive power" of conservative talk? Simply put: to scare the folks on his side of the political aisle and mobilize them to action. With the Republicans in disarray and no leader to function as a lightning rod, talk radio has become the progressives' bogeyman. Mr. Press ratchets up the fear factor by claiming that conservative talk radio was created and nurtured by a cabal of wealthy conservatives using a media strategy devised in the Nixon era by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. According to this gothic tale, well-heeled right-wingers bought radio stations, recruited conservative talk hosts and established think tanks to provide these mouthpieces with pro-capitalism talking points.

That certainly was the blueprint for the founding of the Northern Alliance Radio Network. Well, expect for the whole "well-heeled" part.

In reality, conservative talk radio as we know it dates from Rush Limbaugh's rise to national prominence in the late 1980s. The format's appeal to broadcasters is easily explained: It works. Radio stations succeed by attracting and holding a target audience that advertisers find desirable. As Mr. Limbaugh's success first demonstrated, affluent, conservative, middle-age guys love to hear conservative ideas aired--an uncommon phenomenon in the American media--and advertisers love affluent middle-age guys.

According to Mr. Press, progressive talk radio will languish until wealthy liberals get a clue and start buying up media properties. He confesses that he hasn't had much success in selling this idea to his liberal allies. Maybe they saw how well Air America worked out.

The true problem with conservative talk radio is that there's a glut on the market. In the over-leveraged radio industry, which is struggling to maintain its somewhat diminished place in media-saturated American life, cash-strapped station owners have in recent years eliminated hundreds of local talk programs in favor of syndicated right-leaning shows, which the stations receive in exchange for airing network commercials. The result is an off-putting sameness across dial.

I expect that analysis is far more astute than anything you would find in "Toxic Talk." In some ways, conservative talk radio has become a commodity. Other than Rush and maybe five or six other national hosts, there's little to distinguish the content or the characters whose voices we hear. With more and more stations going to national programming, there's not enough of the regional or local hosts who bring their unique styles and perspectives to the airwaves.

Finally, we turn to the good ol' Letters to the Editor. In the May 21st WSJ, Mortimer Zuckerman (hardly a Tea Partying neocon) had a piece on The Bankrupting of America:

City government was developed to serve its citizens. Today the citizenry is working in large part to serve the government. It is always hard to shrink government spending. It is particularly difficult when public-sector unions have such a unique lever of pressure.

We have to escape this cycle or it will crush us. One way is to take labor negotiations out of the hands of vulnerable legislators and assign them to independent commissions. They would have a better shot at achieving a fair balance between appropriate salary increases and the revenues and services of local municipalities. The electorate won't swallow any more red ink.

Not surprisingly, Zuckerman's article elicited a number of letters from readers. Almost all agreed with his view that something has to be done to reign in public employee unions and their generous compensation and benefit packages. With one notable exception:

Public-service workers such as police officers, social workers, teachers, firemen and sanitation workers deserve to be paid well. Their work is essential for our country, is often dangerous and continues 24-7. Moreover, these workers are highly trained and spend years in preparation prior to entering the job market. A civilized society requires dedicated public-sector employees who are compensated for their work. Our nation's deficit is a complex issue and must be addressed with intelligent and thoughtful solutions.

A word to my comrades in the public sector. Right now, the public as a whole ain't real thrilled when they learn of the sort of benefits you enjoy or hear you calling for tax increases to continue to fund these benefits, many of which they don't enjoy in their private sector jobs. The recent tough economic times have forced almost everyone to cut back. But despite looming deficits and growing debt, you don't seem willing to sacrifice much of anything.

Given that background, if you're going to make an argument in favor of high pay for your noble public service work, you're going to have to do a hell of a lot better than this. We’ll leave aside whether the work of social workers is "essential for our country" and how dangerous it really is to be a teacher or sanitation worker for now and focus on the supposed 24-7 aspect of these jobs. While cops and fireman are often on call at various hours throughout the day, I'm pretty sure they're well-compensated for any extra time they put in. In fact, I think there's a rather well-documented history of how many folks in these positions have milked their overtime for maximum benefit. I'm not aware of too many instances when sanitation workers are called on to work outside their normal shift, but I would imagine that they too are generously paid for every extra minute they have to work.

Teachers are available 24-7? Yeah, expect for those three months during the summer. Teachers who complain about having to correct papers or prepare lesson plans outside of their "core hours" crack me up. Welcome to the real world. In today's interconnected information world, more and more jobs involve working outside of traditional hours. Conference calls at night, e-mails any time of day, and business trips that require traveling on weekends are not unusual anymore. And most of the folks doing this sort of work aren't paid any extra for this extra time.

Then there's the "these workers are highly trained and spend years in preparation prior to entering the job market" claim. Really? Maybe you could make this claim for social workers (with dubious educational requirements), but for cops, firefighters, teachers, and sanitation workers? C'mon. Got a high school diploma and 12-14 months for the academy? Then you can be a cop. Some fire departments require post-high school education, but for most a high school diploma, meeting the physical requirements, and going through the required training is enough to get a job. No offense intended to any sanitation workers out there, but I don't think you need to be a Rhodes Scholar. And then there's the teachers who like to pretend that unless you've earned one of those prestigious education degrees (available on eBay for 19 cents) you can't possible teach, no matter how well versed you are in the subject matter. Please. Just because you zombie-walked through four (or five or six) years of college classes in "education" does not mean that you're so much more qualified to teach and deserving of being paid more because of it.

Again, I'm not attacking people who have chosen to work in the public sector. You do perform needed services and should be paid for providing them. But you shouldn't be paid more or enjoy benefits that far outstrip people in the private sector who also have time commitments and education and experience requirements that meet or exceed your own. If you truly want to be a "public servant," you can expect a pat on the back from us for your work. But you can't expect us to keep opening our wallets for you.