Here and There

Friday, January 31, 2014

Selected observations on the State of the Union

*Originally appeared in the Jan. 30 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

Tuesday night marked the fifth State of the Union delivered by President Obama, thus fulfilling his duty to “from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

As expected, he called on Congress to extend unemployment benefits, enact measures to ensure equal pay for equal work, and establish a minimum wage of $10.10. The President who has claimed his is the “most transparent” of all administrations allotted all of one sentence to talk about transparency and reforms in America’s surveillance programs.

His sharpest tone came when defending his signature healthcare law, a.k.a. Obamacare. Suggesting Republicans haven’t come up with specific plans to improve healthcare, the President said the “American people are not interested in refighting old battles” and that we “all owe it to the American people to say what we’re for, not just what we’re against.”

Translation: Obamacare is the law. I don’t want to talk about how it increases healthcare costs and raise taxes on Americans. I don’t want to talk about my administration’s complete failure to set up a website – a website! – to enroll participants. Let’s just move on. Nothing to see here.

Obama wasted no time in making one thing clear: He’ll move forward with priority agenda items with or without Congressional approval. His words: “Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation…that’s what I’m going to do.”

Translation: Nah nah nah nah boo boo.

It’s interesting how aggressive this statement was, given the President is not exactly enjoying high marks from the public right now. For the first time on the eve of a State of the Union address, “more Americans rate his performance negatively than positively, with 50 percent disapproving” according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. Even more people – 69 percent – think it’s better for Obama to work with Congress than go around it, according to a Rasmussen poll.

It’s also interesting to note how freely the President discusses his authority to implement policies through executive action. For a constitutional scholar, Obama seems to dismiss this document as little more than a loosely arranged set of recommendations.

The President spent some time talking about economic policies, although I won’t focus on the entirety of his proposals in this column. I was pleased to hear his support for investing in proven (that’s an important word) job training programs that train workers in high-growth and high-demand areas where jobs actually exist. He cited on-the-job training and apprenticeship programs as models that work, and I tend to agree.

Just as I was nodding my head in agreement, however, he went to talking about extending unemployment benefits – again. Unemployment insurance is a temporary program that has already been extended eleven times. Eleven times. Not only do I think this is fiscally irresponsible, I also think it’s just bad public policy to treat a temporary program as a permanent solution to today’s economic challenges.

After the speech, I stumbled across Roll Call newspaper’s “State of the Union in Three Words” hashtag (#sotuin3words). Here is a sampling of how several members of Congress summed up the speech:

“Talk is cheap.” “A home run.” “Lame duck quacking.” “No jobs plan.” “Invest in America.”

Of course, there were also a few that exceeded the three word limit (“Skills Act; pass it!”) that made me chuckle.

This won’t come as a surprise to those who know me, but my favorite line in the State of the Union was related to the Winter Olympics: “Next week, the world will see one expression of that commitment [to dignity and equality] – when Team USA marches the red, white, and blue into the Olympic Stadium – and brings home the gold.”

For those of you who wonder about “worst-case” scenarios (terrorist attack, zombie apocalypse, etc.) wiping out the president and his team during the State of the Union festivities, fear not. This year, as is tradition, one member of the President’s Cabinet stayed behind to ensure continuity of the U.S. government should we be faced with ravenous zombies. The lucky designee was U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, a.k.a. the “designated survivor.”

I’ll leave you with another interesting fact that I didn’t learn until this week’s annual address. Turns out, this speech hasn’t always been one. Our nation’s third president Thomas Jefferson disliked the idea of giving a “state of the union” speech, as he considered it too imperial-like. Instead, Jefferson opted to send his thoughts in writing, thus starting a tradition that would last over a century (until President Woodrow Wilson decided to revive the spoken address).

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Public opinion on Snowden mixed, but spy revelations impact politics, policy

*Originally appearing in Jan. 23 edition of the Laurel Chronicle

A few nights ago I watched the movie J. Edgar. With the talk of wiretaps, conspiracy, and governmental spying on American citizens, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel to today’s NSA.

Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden rocked the world with his revelations about intelligence gathering practices conducted by the NSA.

The revelations caused swift and unexpected reactions. The public was outraged (though perhaps not for long?), and political alliances were forged based on concern for personal privacy or national security, not political party affiliation.

Yeah, it was weird.

Today, it seems the public has (somewhat) moved on from the NSA leaks, even as President Obama and others promise to reform the way we collect information that can help protect our national security interests.

In a Jan. 17 nationally televised speech on NSA reforms, President Obama recognized that in our “rush to respond to a very real and novel set of threats,…the possibility that we [lost] some of our core liberties in pursuit of security also became more pronounced.”

The President recommended a series of reforms, including prohibiting spy agencies from storing Americans’ phone records (though experts agree this will take months, if not longer, to implement); restricting how we spy on foreign allies; and creating a new public advocates panel to weigh in on these issues.

His words sounded good, but his promises were ambiguous. I assume that’s intentional, since he’s walking a not-so-enviable line between protecting personal privacy and protecting America from security threats.

You could say he’s between “Iraq” and a hard place. (Government spying increased after 9/11, which led to searches for weapons of mass destruction, the fall of an Iraqi dictator, and an ever-growing NSA data collection program…)

To those who have questioned whether Snowden’s leaks have done more to harm the country than to help it, I say only this: Without the Snowden revelations, there would be no presidential address on NSA reforms and no meaningful discussion about the role of the government in spying on American citizens. It’s a simple truth, but an important one.

So, are you paying attention? According to a Pew Research Center poll, a mere eight percent of Americans have heard a lot about Obama’s proposals. Seventy-three percent say the President’s changes will have zero impact on protecting personal privacy (two out of three people felt similarly in a Rasmussen poll). Skepticism of the NSA surveillance programs keeps on growing, with 52 percent of Americans disapproving and only 38 percent saying they trust leaders to ensure spy programs are constitutional.

In the midst of this, I wondered how Jones Countians felt about the NSA spying on citizens, Edward Snowden (hero or traitor?), and general attitudes toward government overreach. Toward this end, I polled folks on Facebook…and got a dismal response. Either folks don’t care (see above), didn’t see my post, or simply didn’t want to be quoted in a column.

One response I did get, however, was insightful. Aaron Jacobson, who I know from church many years ago, said Snowden is neither a “hero or traitor. It seems a little too easy to classify in those terms.” Snowden has raised “some very serious issues that strike at the very heart of what our democracy means and what privacy and freedom mean within it.”

My father reminded me of a Ben Franklin quote, which I will paraphrase here: Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither. I certainly agree with that philosophy, but its practice is more complex.

So, in summary, Snowden’s actions are controversial, but they’ve had an impact on the way leaders are publicly dealing with security and privacy issues. Whether the impact is reality or perception, long-standing or fleeting remains to be seen. Public outcry has waned, but skepticism about the spy programs keeps growing. And to top it all off, these issues really aren’t driven by either political party.

Tech Master program smart idea

*Originally appeared in the Jan. 16 edition of the Laurel Chronicle

Last week, the Mississippi Economic Council announced a joint partnership with some large employers to improve state workforce readiness. The Mississippi Scholars Tech Master program, as it is officially called, provides specific standards for a tech-prep course of study with an emphasis on science, engineering, technology, and math (also known as STEM). This year, the program will be piloted in seven counties, including Jones County.

The crux of the program is to direct more students to careers in craft, such as welding, machining, or other technical jobs that aren’t always on a high school student’s radar.

Tech Master is a smart idea, especially considering recent projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2012 through 2022. Two-thirds of the 30 occupations with the largest projected employment increase over this time period aren’t expected to require postsecondary education for entry (craft jobs typically don’t require a college degree, for example). While no degree may be necessary, skills will be required according to the report.

What’s interesting to me is the inclusion of a “soft skills” component in the Tech Master program. Not only are students expected to take certain STEM-focused classes, they are also required to log at least 20 hours of community and/or volunteer service during the year. Communications, multitasking, and other skills gained by participating in community service activities help ensure students are employable upon graduation.

Those who complete the Tech Master program will be recognized both at their high school graduation and by some of the state’s largest employers looking to hire new workers. Irwin Edenzon, president of Ingalls Shipbuilding and corporate vice president of Huntington Ingalls Industries, said his company would give preference to Tech Master graduates during their hiring process.

This is great news for students in the Free State. High schoolers have an opportunity to get a competitive edge in the labor market, and that’s no small feat. While our state may be slowly recovering from the economic recession, the unemployment rate remains elevated and the job market competitive. Programs like the Tech Master initiative can spur economic growth in the Pine Belt, but only if students – and those who influence them – understand their options.

Becoming a “Tech Master” may not sound appealing to high schoolers who dream of “making the big bucks.” But I’ll bet that if you dig deeper, these students don’t actually understand the dynamics of the job market nor the wages that can be earned as craftspeople. To borrow another quote from Ingalls’ Edenzon, craft jobs pay well, with “many of our craftspeople [earning] beginning salaries higher than a starting salary of a four-year, liberal arts graduate.” When students begin to understand that craft jobs can provide a comfortable living, I imagine their tune about career ambitions may change.

But, really, it’s up to parents, teachers, advisors, and other influencers to make sure students understand their options, including a realistic look at what jobs are available. These influencers should steer clear of any comments that may intentionally or unintentionally stigmatize jobs in the skilled trades.

The Tech Master program may not be for everyone. There are certainly a large number of students who aspire to (and should) attend a four-year university. But not everyone fits into that socially-acceptable mold. The new Tech Master program gives these students a way to succeed and feel good about it. Let’s encourage them to do so!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Correctional system costly, but reforms possible

*First appeared in the Jan. 9 edition of the Laurel Chronicle

In December 2013, the Mississippi Corrections and Criminal Justice Task Force released a series of recommendations in a 24-page report (which, in case you'd like some light reading, can be found at The legislatively-created task force was charged with developing policies that improve public safety, ensure clarity in sentencing, and control corrections costs.

Legislators recognized the ballooning costs of the correctional system, which spurred the creation of this task force. Task force studies show Mississippi's prison population has grown by 17 percent over the last ten years, with our state having the second-highest imprisonment rate in the country. "Absent policy change...Mississippi will need to house an additional 1,990 inmates by 2024," and that growth will require more than a quarter of a billion dollars - $266 million - in new spending, based on task force estimates.

It doesn't take a mathematician to understand that's a lot of money.

The task force recommendations have received bipartisan support, and most every member of the state's legislative leadership has embraced the notion of adopting some, if not all, of these changes to curb exploding costs.

The recommendations to control prison population and growth include expanding judicial discretion in imposing alternatives to incarceration, ensuring clarity and certainty in sentencing, focusing prison space on violent and career criminals, and strengthening supervision and intervention. Check out the full report for the 19 specific recommendations.

This isn't the first time lawmakers have grappled with rising costs at the Department of Corrections. In fact, it reminds me of - guess who - former Governor Haley Barbour and his "Operation: Streamline" initiative to eliminate the state’s more than $700 million budget shortfall over a two-year period. Doing so would require getting a handle on skyrocketing prison costs.

Part of Governor Barbour's "Operation: Streamline" plan was to ask the Legislature to give management authority and flexibility to departments and agencies that report directly to him. The Legislature approved this extra flexibility for the Dept. of Corrections, giving them freedom from State Personnel Board regulations.

What happened? Dept. of Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps used that authority to make significant changes. According to a 2004 Dept. of Corrections press release, the agency streamlined day-to-day operations by reducing staff "who were not coming to work consistently," eliminating unnecessary positions, and reorganizing operations. In addition to personnel actions, the Dept. of Corrections also removed 81 vehicles from its fleet of operation and also eliminated usage of 52 cell phones and pagers.

In his 2005 State of the State address, Gov. Barbour said the Corrections Department spent "5 percent less than last year - not 5 percent less than predicted, but 5 percent less than in FY 2004! And this despite a 3 percent increase in the number of prisoners incarcerated. That is a $15 million savings in one year by the department."

It was an impressive accomplishment made possible by cooperation between the Legislature, Governor Barbour, and the Dept. of Corrections. Commissioner Epps, who has served under multiple governors and still holds the same position at the department, deserves a lot of credit.

Mississippi's correctional system is in need of reform, and the current programs are too costly. But as we've seen before, smart reforms to cut costs without jeopardizing safety are possible to achieve in a relatively short amount of time.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Mississippi’s resolutions for the new year

*First appeared in the Jan. 5 edition of the Laurel Chronicle

It’s hard to believe it was 14 years ago when we were faced with a Y2K technological cataclysm. Looking back, it seems kind of funny, doesn’t it? One decade we’re worried our computers can’t handle a rollover to “00”; the next decade, we’re worried our government is spying on us through this same technology. My how times have changed.

Yet one thing doesn’t ever seem to change: Our desire to start each new year anew, replete with resolutions on how we’re going to live life to the fullest, eat better and exercise, and spend more time with loved ones.

It got me to wondering what kind of resolutions our beloved state might have if it were, you know, the resolutin’ type.

Resolution Number One: Finally kick the habit (that is, our addiction to federal funds).

Regardless of what type of federal assistance we’re talking – from housing funds to Medicaid, to unemployment and welfare, Mississippi relies on a hefty chunk of federal funds to operate its federal-state programs. As one of the poorest states in the union, I doubt we’ll make good on this resolution anytime soon.

Resolution Number Two: Read more.

It seems our state recognizes the connection between kickin’ the federal funds addiction and higher literacy rates. More quality education tends to generate more wealth, which in turn would reduce our reliance on the federal gub’ment.

Fortunately, steps are being taken to increase the state’s literacy rates. Charter schools, nontraditional public schools that must meet certain performance marks or shut their doors, will begin operating within the next year. The new “third-grade reading gate” legislation will require intensive assessments of third graders to ensure reading comprehension levels are up to snuff. After all, it’s said the third grade is when students stop learning to read and begin reading to learn.

Resolution Number Three: Eat better, exercise more, and finally lose weight.

Said differently, Mississippi has an interest in its citizens being healthier (and skinnier), which could be achieved by all of us eating better and exercising more. But that’s the thing – we don’t talk about wellness as much as we talk about healthcare. There is a difference. Instead of focusing on “cure,” we fight over “care.” For sure, healthcare (both quality and availability) is a critical public policy issue, especially as it relates to strapped government budgets. But I wonder how we’ve sent a man to the moon yet remain stumped in our efforts to find a cure for the common cold. Is this simply my misunderstanding of science and technology, or indicative of a larger focus on healthcare instead of prevention?

(By the way, kudos to Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and other members of the Miss. Legislature for leading the way on getting more active. Their involvement in the Fit 4 Change exercise program demonstrates a commitment to health beyond a new year resolution.)

Resolution Number Four: Spend more time with friends and family.

You’re thinking, “how does a state spend more time with friends and family?” Easy. It keeps its citizens at home by providing opportunities for personal growth and development. Far too many of Mississippi’s young people are leaving our state. We raise them; we educate them; and then we export them to other states where they work, pay taxes, and raise their families.

Not only does this “brain drain” harm our economic growth, it also jeopardizes our state’s long-term ability to survive. We need talented young people to invest here, to live here, and to raise their little ones here. Thankfully, efforts are underway to turnaround this trend, such as our state’s focus on attracting better paying jobs as well as groups like the Mississippi Brain Drain Commission.

This imaginary list could go on and on, but you get the idea. It’s funny how these statewide resolutions aren’t so different than most of our personal resolutions. Perhaps Mississippi, or any state for that matter, really is just the sum of its parts (or, specifically, its people).

Happy New Year, y’all.