Greg's Opinion Greg's big blog of whatnot

11Dec/097

Runoff 2009

An unusual election night for yours truly. The early part of the day was focused on the first half of a football game, then work, then church, then getting home late after the votes have been counted and the commentary been added.

And if that wasn't enough, there's the usual mix of good and sad that comes from a hefty ballot of active campaigns. On the positive, there's seeing Annise Parker being elected Mayor.

I started off as a leaner for Gene and have a few friends on the professional side of that fence. Unfortunately, candidates tend to be defined over the course of their campaign and Gene did a lot to define himself in a way that made it impossible for me to support him at the end. I'd like to believe the best in him, but it wasn't a good season to run with the combined effect of being both an insider and a first time-candidate. It would seem that the out-of-fashion-ness of the latter combined with the learning curve of the latter to produce a lethal dose of electoral reality for him this time around.

As for Annise's future as Mayor, I obviously wish her the best and hope that she serves as effectively as Mayor as she seems to have done as Controller. As one who's leaned most often toward the reformer/outsider wing of local politics, it's been rather refreshing to see her run in this mold without the rest of us suffering through the anguish of another candidate hitting the Greanias line. My concerns with her at the outset were modest and clouded largely by the lack of comparison to the current inhabitant of the position she sought. There are some timely updates I'd like to see in the way that the City of Houston allows citizens to interact with local government that technology enable far more than they did in 2004. Here's hoping that Mayor Parker has enough interest in building some of those bridges.

For the office of Controller, I'm content to see Ronald Green win the job for two reasons: he's on enough of the same page with Parker to work constructively with the Mayor; and he's independent enough that I think he'll speak up where he sees the most need to highlight a problem ... as opposed to highlighting a politically opportune issue. His tax issue should be treated more forthrightly ... not to mention quickly. This was a race between two candidates trying to determine which one would be the luckiest politician in Houston: the Muslim with a funny name who doesn't live in Houston; or the guy who can't raise funds to communicate meaningfully with voters and owes back taxes. Houston deserves better in this office. For now, Ronald Green has up to six years to prove his capability despite running on luck. I won't mind if he succeeds and becomes a formidable candidate for Mayor in six years, but I'm only cautiously optimistic about that happening.

Among the At Larges, there wasn't really a shocker of the bunch. I hope to see Stephen Costello serve as a constructive-style Republican on Council. To the extent that his path models Anne Clutterbuck, I'd say that's pretty good. To the extent that it tracks with the past few members from District G and E ... not so much. Of course, I'm most eager to see Jolanda Jones return to Council. Not that her own episodes of un-constructiveness are good things, but I can't say I'd mind seeing her combativeness aimed at her fellow members who put their own names on the line against her. They deserve the grief that I feel confident she's capable of giving them.

And lastly, the District races. Watching Al Hoang serve on council for the next two years should be embarrassing for the city. That Hoang is another candidate - now elected official - who doesn't even live in District F makes for an enormous running joke. Redistricting may answer whether I have to take a personal concern in the 2011 election for Hoang's seat. I'd love for him to be more Alief's problem than Sharpstown's by then.

Over the past several weeks, I've had the very discomforting pleasure of counting the "last time" I have the luxury of doing a number of things based on working in a certain part of town one day, and another the next; based on having one type of employer one day, and another the next. And along this line, this is the last real election I'll get to cover as the pause buttom is a bit closer for this little blog. It's been interesting, primarily for noticing how different the campaigns operate in the "New Blog Order" of 2009 compared to 2003 and 2001. Eight years is not really a huge amount of time, even in politics. But the changes in campaign methods around what used to be known as "new" media has been a significant change. All I have to look forward to now is to hopefully wratchet things up a notch or two for the coming year.

Anyways, congratulations to Mayor-elect Annise Parker. I'll be sure to keep up on how things go ... even if I don't have my own two cents thrown into the conversation about how they go.

1Dec/090

Loose Ends: 12/01/09

» Obama gives his big Afghanistan speech tonight, and is expected to call for ~30k more troops and a revised strategy. This is pretty much the kind of moment that Thomas PM Barnett was made for. But I'll also be looking to see how much of Maj. Jim Gant's influence is in the final edit.

» Gene Locke tries to run out the clock on his endorsement by rightwing nut, Steve Hotze. Which reminds me ... don't you normally try to run out the clock when you're ahead in the game???

» Andrew Sullivan draws an historical lesson from the recent Swiss ban on minarets.

» The Liberty Bowl has hosted the C-USA champ since 1997. So why is there suddenly a ruckus over the literal reading of their contract, which stipulates that they merely have "first choice" of C-USA bowl-eligible teams? I'm not sure who should be more paranoid over that: us Coogs, or East Carolina fans. I guess it comes down to which you believe more: the constant, historical slighting of UH in sports, academia, and pretty much everything else; or that Case Keenum sure would be a nice TV draw for the Liberty Bowl.

» Wixon & Dent preview next week's playoff games from a Metroplex perspective.

» I'm still not sure what to make of an NFL where the New Orleans Saints are considered a powerhouse. What next? ... up is down? ... black is white? ... cats and dogs living together?

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30Nov/090

Optimist Prime

» WaPo: In health-care reform, no deficit cure (Lori Montgomery)
» WaPo: Even if health bill passes soon, wait for reforms could be long (David Hilzenrath)

I guess the Washington Post has graduated from the "Some say/Others say" school of journalism (via Montgomery's story) ...

Optimists say the $848 billion package drafted by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) contains all the most promising ideas for transforming the health-care system and encouraging doctors and hospitals to work more efficiently. They say it would eventually reduce both private premiums and the swelling cost of government health care for the elderly and poor.

Even pessimists don't necessarily disagree. But they see scant evidence that those ideas would quickly bear fruit, and in the short term they fear that the initiative would leave Washington struggling to pay for a new $200 billion-a-year health program even as existing programs require vast infusions of cash to care for the aging baby-boom generation.

Those concerns were magnified by the release of Reid's bill, which the Senate will begin debating on Monday. Democrats were thrilled when the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported that the package was fully "paid for" -- meaning lawmakers had identified spending cuts and tax increases sufficient to cover the cost of expanding coverage to 30 million additional people.

But the measure would not deliver on Democrats' most ambitious claims, the CBO found. While the package would not worsen the nation's record deficits, it would not significantly improve them, either now or in the future. Reid's bill would shave less than 2 percent from deficits projected to top $9 trillion over the next decade. And it would make only "small reductions" after that, the CBO said -- about 0.25 percent of GDP -- to deficits projected to balloon to roughly 14 percent of the economy by 2035.

"The hope that health-care reform would take care of our budget problem has evaporated," said Isabel Sawhill, a fiscal expert at the Brookings Institution.

But seriously, there's a reason some of us who don't quarrel with comprehensive solutions to improve health care availability aren't seeing eye to eye with this bill. Sure, most of the arguments from the elected class are beyond farcical. But the reality is that the current versions of the bills are asking us to trust the federal government to do something it hasn't ever been known to do well in the past: stick to a commitment to cut health care costs.

If the entirety of HarryCare were offered at a much reduced tab, minus the individual mandate, I'd probably have little concern for it and be cheering it on. It's one thing to renew hope that pilot projects for cost savings can be scaled up in the future when the promise exceeds the cost. But the latest offering seem upside down, and that's a shame for much of the good that the bills have to offer beyond my objections.

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29Nov/090

The Last Mile

What today feels like ...

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26Nov/090

Golden Fleece 2.0?

» NYT: Feingold Picks Up 'Fleece' Mantle

Senator Russ Feingold on Monday launched a new "Spotlight on Spending" that recalled the long-running -- and better-named -- campaign against perceived government waste by an earlier maverick Democrat from Wisconsin, the late William Proxmire of "Golden Fleece" fame.

With all due respect to Sen. Feingold, I'm not sure anyone can really claim to carry on Proxmire's tradition in the truest sense. Kudos to him for at least opting for a different name.
Don't get me wrong ... Feingold does have some pretty good credibility for doing what he's doing. But there just doesn't exist anyone in the Senate today with Proxmire's particular critique on federal spending. They literally just do not make them like that anymore. I suspect the late Senator was aware of this when he declined giving any of his fellow Senators the mantle of the "Golden Fleece" awards back in his final year despite several of them asking for it.

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25Nov/090

Approaching the Problem From the Wrong Angle

» NYT: From the Hospital to Bankruptcy Court

An interesting sidenote of the health care debate ...

In the campaign to broaden support for the overhaul of American health care, few arguments have packed as much rhetorical punch as the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God notion that average families, through no fault of their own, are going bankrupt because of medical debt.

President Obama, in addressing a joint session of Congress in September, called on lawmakers to protect those "who live every day just one accident or illness away from bankruptcy." He added: "These are not primarily people on welfare. These are middle-class Americans."

The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, made a similar case on Saturday in a floor speech calling for passage of a measure to open debate on his chamber's health care bill.

The legislation moving through Congress would attack the problem in numerous ways.

Bills in both houses would expand eligibility for Medicaid and provide health insurance subsidies for those making up to four times the federal poverty level. Insurers would be prohibited from denying coverage to those with pre-existing health conditions. Out-of-pocket medical costs would be capped annually.

I'm sure the various approaches that come out of the sausage factory will play a role in cutting down the number of health care-related bankruptcies, but each one strikes me as small ball. I mean, if you really wanted to deal with the problem head-on, you'd simply write a new chapter of bankruptcy law that allows people to designate a health care-related bankruptcy. You could write it such that it wouldn't register on your credit score in the manner that other bankruptcies do. You would still be able to meet your obligations for the remainder of your finances and it would have no affect whatsoever.

The problem? Insurance companies wouldn't like it and it would also bump up rates to allow for bankruptcies and defaults. But I'm not sure the rate bump would be significant since a) people are already filing *a* form of bankruptcy already, and b) there would be no theoretical increase in the likelihood of default. But good luck selling that to the insurance lobby.

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25Nov/090

Shorter Perry: “I Liked the Old Federal Standards More”

» DMN: Perry says Texas, not U.S., should set state public education standards

Funny, it seems like such a short time ago that a Texas Governor was suggesting federal standards for education and all the rightwing sheep were in immediate compliance. And from whence, No Child Left Behind was born!

Now?

Gov. Rick Perry still wants no part of a move to establish national standards for English and math instruction in public schools.

Perry issued a letter Tuesday - just as rival Kay Bailey Hutchison was announcing education policy proposals - to state Education Commissioner Robert Scott reiterating his opposition to federal standards.

Texas education officials, with Perry's backing, told the U.S. Department of Education in June that the state would not participate with most other states in developing the standards, spelling out what students at all grade levels should be taught in those subjects.

By doing so, Texas has severely hurt its chances of getting a piece of a $4.35 billion federal grant program for schools, known as "Race to the Top" funds. But Perry said in his letter that that's a price worth paying.

Ironically, all of this comes as SecEd, Arne Duncan has had the following to say about how standards will be crafted in the Obama administration:

As states come together around higher common standards, I want to flip it - and be tighter about the goals - but more flexible in how you can meet them.

I trust states and districts to find the way - and I don't trust Washington to tell you how to do it. You have the ideas, the leadership, and the ability. I'm here to support you.

I just cannot help but find it comical that the one time leading Republican electeds finally come out against elements of NCLB, it's when the standardization process is devolved more to the local level.

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17Nov/090

Light Blogging Notice

Light blogging today due to some heavy research-type stuff at the day job. In leiu of that, here's some mind-blowing video of Sammy Hagar in the period between Montrose and "I Can't Drive 55."
Why? Because understanding your basic principles of rock & roll history should be required knowledge.

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16Nov/090

LA Rolls Out the New Line

» LA Times: After decades of waiting, their trains have arrived

The East LA line of light rail opened up recently. It's still too early to see if it gets taken to as favorably as the new line in Phoenix. But there's one notable and similar feature tucked into this outtake:

A major impetus for the $898-million rail line was to make it easier and cheaper for residents to reach jobs in downtown and beyond. But the Gold Line extension is also important because of the promise it portends, Huizar said. He believes it could spark a renaissance, ushering in businesses and an arts district and leading to the discovery of neighborhoods that have "been neglected" for decades.

...

Roger Moliere, chief of real property management and development for the MTA, said several development projects are planned near stations, though he added that the recession was gumming up the process.

"My hope and expectation is that it will be an extraordinary economic boon to the area," he said.

Eric Avila, a professor of history and Chicano studies at UCLA, said the Gold Line extension is a victory for social justice, and signals a shift in transportation planning. The freeways built around Boyle Heights "cordoned off the area from the rest of the city," he said.

But development of the rail line hasn't come without safety concerns. The Eastside extension dips underground in only a few spots. Most of it travels like a stitched-in zipper through narrow streets, at surface level and usually just feet away from cars.

That's right ... at-grade light rail. Somehow, I would have expected howls of fiscal irresponsibility had the plan been to run a more expensive elevated route (as we've seen before!).

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15Nov/090

Two Sides of Globalization

» WaPo: Globalization brings a world of hurt to one corner of North Carolina
» WaPo: A rising China is changing the way Americans live overseas and at home

I may be a small minority here, but I think it would have been even better if the Post had done a week-long series of articles such as these, touching on how various parts of the country are impacted positively and negatively by increased trade with Asian countries. As it stands, we end up with two sides of the coin represented, one from the rural midwest and another from the textile-reliant southeast.

In the case of Wisconsin ginseng farmers, there's some positive in that China's growing demand for better quality poses a great opportunity for American exporters. At the end of the day, it's easier to improve quality when you have a better educated workforce. There may be some exceptions out there in the world, but quality improvements over time generally bode well for American companies as long as there's not a large, entrenched incentive to resist change (see the American steel industry for an example or two).

In the case of the North Carolina furniture upholsters, the news may not be as good. In particular, I tend to view the average age of the employee being displaced as something that's difficult to repair. It's one thing to send a 28-yr old kid to job training in the hopes that he'll land another solid career. But what to do with a 48-yr old? The article gives some good insight into the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, with this part jumping out for me:

The GAO analysis from 2000 found that 75 percent of displaced workers in TAA found jobs. Of those, only 56 percent earned 80 percent or more of their previous wage.

In 2002, Congress called for another impact analysis of the program. The report is two years away, a Labor Department spokesman said.

The inattention to the program's effectiveness is evidence, critics say, that its primary purpose is political and that its actual benefits for workers are an afterthought.

That definitely sounds like a situation that could stand to improve, regardless of your views on free trade.

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