Windmillin'

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Where politics and faith dance in the shadow of the windmill.

Opportunity Knocked

In one sense, it was the least surprising news of the day.
Speaker of the House, Rep. John Boehner removed West Michigan’s own Justin Amash from membership on the House Budget committee. The move represents a lost opportunity to both Amash and the West Michigan community.

The business of crafting budgets is a function of power. Amash had the opportunity to serve on perhaps the singularly most important committee in the House. His initial position was a testimony to his promise, but it was a promise that does come at a cost, the surrender of ideals for the messier work of governance. A deal must be done, and really, there’s no sense in giving a dissenter, even an up-and-coming member the megaphone. Especially if the same person is being trumpeted as the true heir of the libertarian wing of the GOP.

And while Amash’s idealism served an important role in his first term, rallying young Republicans and serving as a foil to the President, that day is over. His is the prophet’s reward: the wilderness.

Unfortunately in this journey to the wilderness, he takes the region with him. The gift of the seat on the Budget committee was a gift to W Michigan and its civic leadership; the idealistic stances of Amash that prevented him from taking up the work of governance may have kept him pure, but the deprived this community of opportunity. And that’s to every one’s loss.

 

Filed under: National,

Urban School Hope from Philadelphia

Dave Murray writes about the Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia. An urban education program driven by high standards and backed by civic leaders. He concludes, asking

Sometimes I wonder of a solution to urban education’s woes came before us, would we reject it if we didn’t like where it came from? Or, are we so invested in the excuses for failure that we attack anyone who challenges them?

The questions about such an experiment abound. At the most practical, Murray notes this is a question of scalability. Grant the success, to what extent is it the property of the culture of the organization itself, and can it then multiply, scale-up? This is the recognized problem of charters: their accomplishments may be too site specific. What are the lessons that we are to learn from such institutions, such successes? Is it only a form of academic tough love? If other comparable programs are any indication, it is a question of resources, both the hard and the soft. Of course, given the success of a program like Mastery, there will be the temptation of civic leaders to adopt a comparable model as the silver bullet, another cookie cutter solution. There’s stuff to be learned here definitely, we should also know that one size is always a bad fit.

A second question lurking is for the charter school community. While we often contrast such successes with the public schools out of which the programs emerge, the other question to ask is about the  charters themselves. After all, with 50 percent of school-age children in Detroit already in a charter, why then don’t they show the same achievement? Their “no excuses” style may be the key, but I would bet we could find a host of other programs that try to emulate the same with not so stellar success. No one has ever denied that some charters will succeed very well (case in point: Black River), the question is why don’t other charters succeed, as well.

And lastly there is simply the issue of our own hopes. These stand out schools seem to validate our own ideals for education, that we can overcome the great barriers in our lives. That a few can do it then becomes a validation of our ideals and ironically spurs us on to do… nothing. The real lesson in Mastery and other such models is that we can do something, that these efforts take a great deal of resources, far outstripping those in the surrounding community and often in the political culture. It can be done. But that some do it turns to become the opposite, that those who succeed must obviously point to the moral failure of the others.

Mastery tells us that there is a legitimate hope for urban schools; we are not mistaken. However, we cannot learn the lesson without doing our own homework. And of course, making sure that the schools have the resources.

Filed under: Horace Mann, National, , , , ,

Jobs, training, and education

Today’s New York Times tells the story of another part of the proposed congressional budget: cutting of job (re)training.

Whether Congress is willing to consider more aid is uncertain. The federal budget endorsed by House Republicans calls for reductions in a broad category that includes job training.

Now this should concern most folks in west Michigan. The shifts in jobs have put a number of workers in economic jeopardy; re-training is one of the crucial skills the region needs for economic health. And it is not only re-training, but simply the training itself.

As Rick Haglund pointed out Sunday, Michigan jobs are not only going unfilled, but the State continues to underfund

One of the state’s biggest problems is that it doesn’t have enough workers with the skills to fill about 76,000 available jobs posted on Michigan’s online jobs bank.
What is the Legislature’s response to that? Squeeze K-12 and university budgets.

More expected than disappointing has been the stance of “Congressman No,”  Rep. Justin Amash. His profound skepticism about the civic infrastructure robs the future prosperity.

On the surprising side, there is the silence from the Democratic challengers, either to Amash’s own votes, or for the general cause of education. After a month, the Steve Pestka campaign has yet to put out any information as to what the candidate stands for. On anything. The web site is little more than a bill board with a space to contribute. The campaign site of Trevor Thomas provides more information — one would expect that, they are in some sense the challenger, the unknown — but again, not a word about education. Not even where he was in high school, ten years ago.

Such silence is confusing for two reasons. First, for constituencies, education and retraining are essential. The African-American community has especially supported the cause; the districts to the east of Grand Rapids (East Grand Rapids, Forest Hills) are state-recognized leaders in education. Meanwhile in Calhoun County, the federal government provided $5 million in stimulus retraining. Second, knowing that the Republican campaign can pull out serious financial guns, it simply makes no sense to wait as to messaging. Like or not, the November election campaign has already started.

Filed under: Economy, National, , , ,

Two Dems better than one Republican

Tomorrow morning Steve Pestka joins Trevor Thomas in the race for the Third Congressional.

Pestka brings a solid record as a moderate, pro-life Democrat, a background that has attracted attacks by some, as well as spurred doubts by progressives in the community. To date, none have gone public with their misgivings.

Thomas has a local connection (Wyoming native, GVSU graduate) and comes off of a big win for the overturning of Dont Ask Don’t Tell. This work has brought him to national attention, at least in the LGBT communities. And Thomas is also young, 28.

Both are driven by a combination of the redrawn lines of the Third, and by the staunchly conservative stands taken by the incumbent, Justin Amash. Add to this that the prospect that 2012 may in fact look like 2008 (so Ruy Teixiera), the candidacy becomes hot property. In 2008, the new district basically broke even in its vote for Obama (177,195 McCain, 180,021 Obama).

If the district looks like a possible win, how are the two Dems ready for the challenge? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Elections, National, , , , , , , , , ,

The Memory Landscape of Willard Romney

It was one of those awkward moments, made all the more so by its very earnestness: Mitt  Romney spoke of his love for Michigan. Before the campaign leaves the State, perhaps its time to unpack his love, and why it fell so short.

For the record, here’s part of what he said:

“A little history — I was born and raised here. I love the state. It seems right here. Trees are the right height.

“I like — I like seeing the lakes. I love the lakes. Something very special here. The Great Lakes but also all the little inland lakes that dot the parts of Michigan.

The words are made even the more awkward by a peculiar little hand twitter on “inland lakes,” but rather than dwell on the failure, a better question is to ask, what was he trying to communicate in the first place? What did he hope to connect to? Even the bad — especially the bad or disastrous communications come packed with intention. Disasters are rarely accidental.

So let’s  scrape away the phrasing. Underneath, this is a landscape those in Michigan recognize: the country dirt roads shadowed in summer; the way the big trees hug the state highway, the mix of sumac, elms, and chestnuts at the hedgerow; the dark rhythm of old oaks etched with new snow; the last blaze of yellow on a football Saturday.  These are not the trees of our North, but those nearby, near our towns, nestled by the lakes left by glacier with names like Gun, Chippewa, Big Star, and Murray, Silver, Crooked, and Whitmore. While commentators look at our Great Lakes as the dearly loved, it is this other, inland landscape that’s interesting.

These are the kettle lakes, the leftovers from the great glaciers, folded in by the gently rolling landscape of moraines and modest hills.  We do not have escarpments or towering heights. We lack the great defining rivers. Nor is ours the fertile prairie landscape of Indiana or Ohio. These are the lakes close to home, the Saturday destination in a landscape before interstates. Their shorelines often partially undeveloped, dotted with little resorts of small cabins that offered working men and women (and executives) a place to go on the weekend, a refuge.

Romney is on to something, his words point not to the present, but to that earlier time, when he was the teen, when this landscape was not yet consumed by development. It is, as his reference to cars indicates, the landscape of Mitt’s remembered youth.

Mitt’s earnest awkwardness arises then, with his memory. The repeating, the turning back to his themes — this is the language of emotion that does not have the words; the words that seem so inadequate to convey the lost time and its rich associations.

But if memory betrays him, there is another rhetorical betrayal tucked into his words. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: National, , , , , ,

Window Dressing

The pictures were not good. A bunch of dark suited clerics — men — talking about contraception and religious freedom. This was the picture from last week’s now infamous hearing by the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform led by Rep. Darrell Issa.   It wasn’t that committee member Rep. Justin Amash didn’t try to help. He had brought along Dr. Laura Champion, Medical Director of Health Services at Calvin College, but she spoke in a second panel, roundly ignored by the media.

Of course, it was not mystery why a Republican hearing would welcome testimony from Dr. Champion; she provided relief from the cultural war frame that was developing around the issue. After all with the Republicans being vilified for their male perspective, the prospect of woman testifying, if even at the last minute, could mitigate the perception. She was a doctor who could frame contraception away from church dictates, whose work in student health services provided a convenient change of focus from the employment rights frame, plus she was from one of the leading evangelical colleges in the country, a brand name. What’s not to like?

In her testimony the Committee got what it needed. Dr. Champion first addressed contraception issues distinguishing between ready support of birth control pills and the rejection of the abortifacient nature of post-coital contraception (Plan B and ella) — a distinction that neither pro-life advocates or medical science support. And then she moved on to an assertion of religious liberty and of opposition to the Administration largely mirroring  conventional conservative points.

If Committee got what the window dressing  it wanted, it is less clear what was in it for the Calvin.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: National, , , , , , , , ,

More Radical Than They Knew

After the President’s address, a couple of items from Pete Hoekstra and John Shadegg’s piece in last week’s WSJ stand out.  Not least, will Pete agree?

Reform Insurance

The heart of their piece, the moment when they begin to actually talk about the real human need comes when they say

” no one should go bankrupt because of a chronic disease or pre-existing conditions like multiple sclerosis or breast cancer.”

This is real common ground, and a big applause line last night.  The need is absolutely critical.

And let’s be clear, the record is clear. The  August issue of the American Journal of Medicine reports 62% of all bankruptcies were due to medical costs, of those in bankruptcies, 75 percent already had medical insurance. The survey also found that 25 percent of companies terminate insurance immediately when an employee has a disabling illness. And yesterday’s Washington Post adds further fuel, noting that insurance companies have earned more than $300 million by selectively culling claims that filed – recission.

Bottom line: some sort of insurance reform is going to be required. Abusive contracts that place families at greater fiscal risk hardly deserve the name “insurance.”  And I’m with McJoan at dailyKos, I wouldn’t especially call such insurance execs “friends.”

Build in Standards.

A second issue raised by the Hoekstra/Shadegg proposal is near and dear to conservatives.  And like insurance, it carries the seed for something more radical.

” Our tax code incentivizes employer-provided health care, rewards health insurance companies by insulating them from accountability, and punishes those who lack employer-provided care.”

And later,

“We must stop punishing Americans who buy their own plan by forcing them to purchase their care with after-tax dollars, making it at least one-third more expensive than employer-provided care. Individuals should be able to take their employer’s plan, or turn it down and select insurance of their own choosing without any tax penalty.”

Talking point blather, perhaps? Then again, a study from Dean Baker’s CEPR brings up an interesting piece of information: the United States lags other developed nations in the proportion of its workforce in small, entrepreneurial businesses. The failure of affordable single payer insurance plays a part here stalls the economic engine.

But to make policies portable, to achieve the competitive ideal, they have to in one sense be comparable.  Call it product protection, if nothing else.  And the Elephants in fact are already looking at “exhange” – some marketplace of validated plans, plans that meet minimal standards of coverage, not least being free from the abusive contracts presently offered.

Insurance exchange.  Minimum standards.  There’s actually a phrase for it: Qualified Health Benefit Plans.

And Who’s in the Pool?

Hoekstra/Shadegg also revives a proposal from the Bush days (actually goes back further).

“State-based high-risk pools spread the cost of care for those with chronic diseases among all insurers in the market. The additional cost of their care is subsidized by the government.”

“Unfortunately, some states have not created high-risk pools, and some need to be restructured to ensure timely access to care. Republicans have proposed fixing this problem by expanding and strengthening this safety net, and by creating reinsurance or risk-adjustment pools so that Americans with chronic medical conditions can get the care they need at an affordable cost.”

Of course making subsidy of insurance rates the property of states would create a large set of unfunded mandates.  Only 35 states have programs at all, and these of varying costs.  The obvious problem is that states have differing levels of willingness or even ability to respond to these types of catastrophic needs.

The reality of varying state levels of support or ability to pay demonstrates why a national solution is to be preferred.  As President Obama said:

“In the meantime, for those Americans who can’t get insurance today because they have pre-existing medical conditions, we will immediately offer low-cost coverage that will protect you against financial ruin if you become seriously ill. This was a good idea when Senator John McCain proposed it in the campaign, it’s a good idea now, and we should embrace it.”

A John McCain idea.

In short the path to real reform is there, even in the Republican proposals.  Of course one would never know it for the hysterics.  Their failure is not in their plan.  As shown, many are substantive and worthy of consideration.  Rather the difficulty is a condition, a holdover from an earlier, less responsible era, where budgets and policy barely talked to one another.  Hoekstra and Shadegg conclude:

“If we give citizens the ability to control their own care, cover pre-existing conditions, and provide resources to the uninsured, we will have fixed health care in America. No bureaucrats. No new czars. No mandates. Just choice and coverage for every American.”

And I want a pony, too.

As the Congressman will tell us elsewhere, we can not simply wish away our problems.  Real problems require real lifting. It would be nice to have Hoekstra and Ehlers engage on this issue, but practical reality requires them to vote no, even when the ideas are theirs.

Filed under: Health care, National, ,

Visceral Reaction

This past Thursday not only marked the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, but also the turning of an important page restoring constitutional government.

On the Mall in Washington, hundreds of thousands gathered for the annual March for Life.  And in the Oval Office—really within earshot—President Obama put his signature on Executive Orders closing Guantanamo CIA prisons and prohibiting “intensive interrogations” (that’s torture, as even government prosecutors concede).

Politically, the two actions seem to be going in opposite directions.  One pitched itself as a  rallying of the opposition — the vehemence of opposition made all the sharper by the actions and statements of then Senator Obama supporting the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA).

For the others, the closing of Guantanamo and the barring of torture fulfills a promise. Each side celebrated with their partisans: new winners, old losers.

Yet the emotional intensity of the both positions belie the straightforward political approach.

As speakers at the rally and commentary around the web make clear, abortion remains one of the first of the major political battle lines.  But for many the position is one of over-riding moral weight.  In conversation, it is impossible to see the other side.

It’s pretty much the same when it comes to the issues surrounding “aggressive interrogation” and detention at Guantanamo.  For them the issue of torture has the same prima facie moral status.  And that’s something new.

This moral outrage, this sense of moral stain gives the left something that it has been missing in political discussion.  Morally charged politics. The other (conservative) side is not simply wrong as a matter of politics or policy, but wrong as a matter of morality.  The rejection is every bit as visceral for left as abortion is for the right.

The question for the conservative and especially the pro-life crowd will be whether they pick up on this fundamental moral positioning.  For those who see it, there is the opportunity for real bridge building: the concern for detainee rights and freedom from torture is of one piece with pro-life concern, part of what Joseph Cardinal Bernadin advanced as a consistent life ethic.

But of course, the temptation to play the partisan card instead of the pro-life one.

So we get comments from Representative Pete Hoekstra and Rep. Vern Ehlers that dodge any awareness of  the moral dimension and go straight for the policy and the political. Hoekstra becomes the security hawk, and Ehlers puts forth a vague pragmatic concern.  And Democrats smile.  Answering moral concerns with this assertiveness or worse, with a wishy-washiness simply concedes the moral high ground. Worse for Republicans, it is an obliviousness which fastens the torture label to all their candidates and pushes them further into the wilderness.

Filed under: Faith, National, , , ,

Doubling Down on Palin

There’s no question the selection of Sarah Palin has been a hit with the social conservatives. E.M Zanotti (aka American Princess) loses herself:

I AM SO EXCITED OMG PLEASE LET THIS NOT BE A HEAD FAKE OMG. I have resisted blogging on the whole McCain Veep thing because they kept faking everyone out and telling us that this guy was clearing his schedule and this guy had the Secret Service creeping out and NOW there’s a CHARTERED JET that is landing from ALASKA and OMG SARAH PALIN OMGOMGOMGOMG!

“Whoo-hooo” also seemed to be the reaction of the day. While enthusiasm reigns the politics — the Michigan politics in particular — has me wondering.

Palin clearly comes from the Huckabee side of the Party. For them, Palin’s definitely their gal. In a somewhat parallel way, she plays the same role, receives the same enthusiasm from her base, as Obama does with the African American community. Both look like game changers.

If Palin’s candidacy is seen as fairly successful, if she brings her social conservative creds to the table while also being an effective spokesperson for the ticket — then this will add to the clout of the social conservative wing. she will fulfill her promise as a unifier. The base is rightly seen as fragmented. In terms of the upcoming gubernatorial race, Palin would seem to strengthen Terri Land’s standing, both as a successful woman, and as a social conservative (Land’s natural constituency).

But what if Palin crashes and burns?

Then the blame game comes out, the base fractures. In Michigan state politics we can see a noticeable tension between Mackinac Center and the Religious Right; or to cast it in terms of West Michigan, that tension between Ada and Grandville. The primary race in SH-72 bears the populist social conservative Yonker v. the economic liberatarian, Justin Amash. If a strong Palin run adds to the credibility, a compromised run will open the door to the economic conservatives and their belief that the way out of the political wilderness is to run even more as “a principled conservative.” In that case institutional conservatives like Mike Cox or even Peter Hoekstra would look more plausible.

Whether Palin is game-changer nationally, in Michigan she will either stitch together a party, or open up divisions. Whatever her riskiness is to McCain’s chances, she definitely brings it to State politics.

Filed under: Elections, National, , , ,

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