Thursday, December 27, 2007

Profile in Courage

The news of Benazir Bhutto's assassination was tragic, but, unfortunately, not unexpected.

Surely she knew, that the odds that she would be killed during her campaign to become Prime Minister of Pakistan, were great. Still, she chose to take her chances and to argue for democracy and against both the terrorism of al-qaeda and the despotism of Musharraf.

I heard a radio commentator make an essential point about the nature of her courage versus the level of politics in this country. Bhutto dared to challenge the powers that be in Pakistan at the risk of (and, ultimately, the cost of) her life. Our politicos do not dare utter a word that has not been polled and "focus-grouped" to insure it is what our voters want to hear.

No American presidential candidate will challenge the value of ethanol in front of Iowa voters for fear of loss of votes. What could we expect if, like Benazir Bhutto, their lives were at stake?

Update: Mark Steyn comments on Bhutto's death in the National Review Online.

The Devil is in the Details

Today's Democrat & Chronicle contained a "speaking out" essay by Michael Shacket. His essay dealt with school funding, and the dearth of detail in the information made public regarding school budgets.

He put the torch to one of the claims always made by school district supporters (which I have generally found questionable), that school budgeting is the most open budgeting process in government. Shacket correctly points out that there is a lot of information withheld from the public regarding school budgeting.

He laid out a great proposal for the type of information that school districts should make available if they really want their taxpayers to be well-informed voters:

"Teacher and administration contracts: More than 70 percent of every school budget reflects negotiated (not mandated) salaries and benefits. The terms of these contracts are hidden from the taxpayers. What is the total dollar effect and budget percentage increase associated with these contracts alone? Contracts should be available on the district's Web site.

Reserve funds: Reserve funds are like savings accounts where taxpayer money is accumulated for either capital or contingency purposes. The amount in these "savings accounts" is often in the multi-millions. However, budgets do not show the financial status of these funds.

Budgeting by school building: School budgets combine money into categories that the public does not understand. What, for example, is "General Support?" Everyone can identify physical buildings. Budgets should reflect all costs associated with each school.

Metrics: While budgets reflect dollars, the associated basic metrics are not presented. For example: How many teachers and students are in each building by grade level? How many buses are in use? How many administrators and support staff members are in each building?

Comparison to previous years: Budgets normally present dollars last year and forecasted for next year. The previous three years of both dollars and metrics would show trends.

Educational outcomes: A Monroe County Schools Report Card is published annually that identifies educational outcomes by school including percentage graduating, SAT scores and the results of standardized state exams. Web sites should include the previous three report cards.

Tables: Districts often use pretty, but uninformative, PowerPoint slides to present budget data. Simple tables would provide clearer data."

Kudos, Mr. Shacket. I hope that the school district leaders, who are currently spending our money on lawsuits to preserve sales tax revenue, will pay attention and give their constituents the information they need to make informed choices.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

So This Is Christmas

Well, Christmas has come, once again.

Not surprisingly, I ate more than I should have at our annual Christmas Eve feast (despite the vow that "this year it would be different"). My brother and sister-in-law outdid themselves in providing the "seven fishes"; the polenta with scallops, shrimp, and tilapia in a spicy marinara sauce being the piece de resistance. My niece's boyfriend, being the newcomer to the festivities, could only shake his head in awe at the spread (and, one assumes, our ability to consume it).

All of the presents have been opened. Most Christmas wishes seem satisfied, at least at our house. I cannot help but reflect on our good fortune. My family has been blessed by God in so many ways. Still, I know there are those who have not been so lucky and for whom Christmas is a time when want is felt more keenly.

Because of that, I want to be sure that my kids understand how fortunate they are and that they understand the need to share their gifts with others who may not have as much as they do. Without being sappy about it, I want to find a way to convey that message to them so that charity and humility will remain part of their make-up.

In any event, accept my best wishes for a Merry Christmas to you and your families.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Another Dead Rabbit

This headline offers more proof that there is an inverse relationship between intelligence and fertility: Jamie Lynn Spears Says She's Pregnant.

Spears, the 16 year old "baby sister" of troubled pop star Brittany Spears, revealed that she was 12 weeks pregnant in an interview with OK! magazine. The father is her long-time boyfriend Casey Aldridge.

Obviously, this is not a funny story, however, you have to laugh at the following quote from the interview, if only so that you don't cry:

"What message does she want to send to other teens about premarital sex? 'I definitely don't think it's something you should do; it's better to wait,' she says. 'But I can't be judgmental because it's a position I put myself in.' "

Maybe she can't be judgmental, but I can. Jamie and Brittany are poster children for what happens to kids who achieve fame too early in life and obviously without the appropriate adult family guidance.

Boy, Mrs. Spears must be so proud!

Pointless Punditry

We are 15 days from the Iowa caucuses and less than two months from "Super Tuesday" (Feb. 5th) and the newspapers, magazines and blogs are full of polls and opinion, telling us who is up and who is down. Huckabee and Obama are hot, Rudy and Hillary are not. McCain and Edwards may be making a comeback.

Maybe we should all give it a rest!

I mean, how many ways can you analyze these races? We are going to have actual votes in a couple of weeks. I love politics but some of the arcane analysis is getting to be too much. There are so many pundits, columnists, bloggers, and commentators and every one of them has an opinion. Each one has been trying to find a new angle, a nuance that no one else has thought of.

I have one. Let's just be quiet and let the votes come in.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Return on Investment

Tonight, the Seventh & Eighth Grade Band held their annual Holiday Concert. The Band, consisting of over 120 musicians, is divided up into a Concert Band and a Symphonic Band. My daughter, Evelyn, an Eighth Grader, plays the Euphonium in the Symphonic Band.

Each group played four pieces. The music was wonderful. While I know that I am biased, these kids sounded as good as any high school band. I have been listening to them for the past 4 years; they are quite talented.

In addition to my pride and pleasure at seeing and listening to my daughter play, there was another reason I wrote about tonight's concert. I am sure you have read a lot about the F.A.I.R. plan and the effects it may have on schools. I have written about that topic both here and on the Gates blog. I have indicated my belief that Gates-Chili is a wonderful district for our kids to be going to school and that we should not be reluctant to pay the tax bill that goes along with getting a quality education.

My belief that the money we spend on school taxes is largely well-spent was justified again tonight. First, the sight of so many kids being able to experience the joys of playing music is awesome. Also, the families of those kids are clearly being enriched by that experience, as well.

Tonight, though, I want to focus on the Band conductor, Christopher Oldfield. His love of music, his enthusiasm, and his energy, are infectious. He clearly loves music and he loves teaching and conducting young musicians. We all hear stories about jaded teachers who really feel that teaching is just another job. Well, spend a night at one of these concerts, see a Chris Oldfield giving a heart-felt, enthusiastic effort, and you will agree that if there are a few teachers like him at Gates, then our investment in our schools is being returned many-fold.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

More D&C Condescension on Consolidation

The Democrat & Chronicle reverted to its condescending best form today with its editorial entitled "high taxes, duplicated services are connected". The editorial opens with this thoughtful and reasonable premise:

"Frankly, New Yorkers continue to talk out of both sides of their mouths on getting the high cost of living in this state under control."

Not satisfied with one insult to its readers, the editorial went on to opine:

"New Yorkers, who support 4,200 taxing entities statewide, need to either start supporting streamlined, more efficient government operations or stop whining about the high taxes they pay."

Quite frankly, there is little reason to accept the D&C view that local government is too expensive. I am a fairly typical New York taxpayer. The dollar amount of taxes I pay to the Town of Gates comprises less than 8% of the total dollar amount of taxes I pay for State Income taxes, County taxes, School taxes, and Town taxes combined. That does not include sales and excise taxes paid to the State.

From the Town of Gates, I get a Police Department which responds within scant minutes for emergencies, provides a four or five car, 24/7 road patrol, and which takes reports in person, a Highway Department that paves, repairs, and plows my streets, picks up my leaves in the fall and my yard debris every week, a Recreation Department that provides beautiful Town Parks and recreation programs for youths and senior citizens, a library that has been seen as second to none in the suburbs, and provides dozens of other services, as well.

All of that for less than 8% of my total tax expense! I'd say that I get 60- 70% of the services I value and enjoy from my Town government. That's quite a return on my investment.

The D&C doesn't get it. We "whiners" aren't whining about paying for the host of services we get from our local governments. We want the State to stop spending lavish amounts on numerous programs and projects of dubious merit and for which we get little value for our money.

The other big thing the D&C seems to forget is the thing called "the consent of the governed". We are entitled to have the government and services we want. Citizens have a big say in the nature and cost of local government, which is generally low cost and high value. We have virtually no say in our State government, which is a Byzantine, bloated, and dysfunctional entity. Don't lecture us about our local government until the really costly levels of government clean up their acts.

The D&C criticised the people of Holley for agreeing to spend $1.00 per day to have local police. That's only about 20-25 cents more than it costs to buy the D&C every day. Given a choice, I know which one I'd give up.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

A High Degree of Doubt

Last week the news was full of stories on the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). As you surely heard or read, the CIA announced that it had a "high degree of confidence" in its prediction that Iran had ceased its military nuclear program in 2003.

There were so many reactions to this news that its difficult to write about all of them. A couple things stand out for me. Perhaps first, is the obvious question of how the NIE in 2007 can conclude, with a high degree of confidence, that Iran halted its military nuclear program in 2003, in light of the conclusion contained in the 2005 version of the NIE, (which also came with a high degree of confidence), that Iran was developing military nukes.

It is also quite humorous to listen to critics of the Bush Administration use the NIE as a weapon against the President. These same critics blasted Bush for listening to "faulty" intelligence about Iraq; now they completely endorse a conclusion from the same intelligence community they loved to bash. Given the many errors in past NIE's, why should we accept this one as gospel?

Still, I don't understand the criticism. If its true that Iran stopped its military nuke program in 2003, there is only one explanation for their change. its the same reason Moammar Qaddafi had for giving up his nuke program; to wit: the US and its allies had just toppled Saddam Hussein and a big US army was sitting in the Middle East. The Bush Administration should be taking credit for Iran succumbing to its pressure and should be pointing out that with bad actors like the Iranians, "you get more with a kind word and a gun than you do with just a kind word".

Meanwhile, several commentators questioned the motives of the CIA officials responsible for these conclusions. If you have time, take a look at these PowerLine posts (J. Hinderaker, 12/3, S. Johnson, 12/4, P. Mirengoff, 12/4, S. Johnson, 12/5, S. Johnson, 12/9), and Norman Podhoretz' analysis and John Bolton's takedown of the NIE. I don't know if there is a full-blown rebellion against George Bush in the career State Department and CIA ranks, but the Valerie Plame/Joe Wilson affair, the many leaks of classified anti-terror programs, and now, the NIE about-face, certainly gives one reason to wonder.

For what its worth, here is Israel's view as reported by the AP:

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said "it's apparently true" that Iran stopped pursuing its military nuclear program in 2003. "But in our opinion, since then it has apparently continued that program," Barak told Army Radio. "There are differences in the assessments of different organizations in the world about this, and only time will tell who is right." Asked if the new U.S. assessment reduced chances that the U.S. will launch a military strike on Iran, Barak said that was "possible." However, he said, "We cannot allow ourselves to rest just because of an intelligence report from the other side of the earth, even if it is from our greatest friend."

I guess Israel doesn't have quite so high a degree of confidence in the CIA.

My personal view is that we have a political system that is badly broken. Our political and governmental figures no longer care for anything but their short-term success and their personal aggrandizement (whether that be in terms of political power, or the acceptance of their socio-political views. The views of the people are all but ignored in this current game. We are treated as spectators rather than those being served.

Until we take back government from the current crop of callous, self-interested politicos, no work will be done on the multitude of serious problems facing us. Instead we will continue to have these games of "gotcha" where the stakes may be our very lives.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Tuba Christmas

We were at Midtown Plaza on Saturday and nostalgia was in the air. We were part of a big crowd who went there for the 25th annual Tuba Christmas. It will be the last one to be held at Midtown.

My daughter Evvy participated in the event, playing her Euphonium which was decorated with Christmas stars. Its really fun to hear all the various shaped and sized tubas playing entire songs. Generally, the tubas don't do the whole melody. The conductor, Glenn Hall, practiced with the group (it was upwards of 250 tubas this year) for about two hours. When they played, it seemed like they had practiced together much longer.

One side note. There was as big a crowd in Midtown as I ever recall seeing. I think it is evidence that if you give people a good reason, they will go downtown. Its too bad that the people who run things in Rochester never took the time to learn this lesson. If they had, maybe Midtown would not be going the way of the dinosaurs.