Archive for August, 2009

End-of-Life Counseling

She hadn’t brought me into this world, but she sure carried me around a lot in it. She took me to places I never thought I’d go. She warmed me when I was cold and protected me when I was scared. She entertained me with music and enlightened me with talk.

In recent years, though, she had become more and more disabled, less and less useful. She eventually went quiet. I simply sat in her presence, listening only to the wind outside.

Was it time to set the wheels in motion toward a planned expiration? I was her guardian, so to speak, and I contemplated the options.

Then, everything changed. I closely examined the details and realized that my 1998 Volkswagen Passat got too good of gas mileage for eligibility in the Cash for Clunkers program!

Her radio no longer worked, but she still got a combined highway/city 22 miles per gallon, 4 mpg over the program’s maximum for passenger vehicles!

My emotions were mixed. I sure wanted a $4,500 subsidy for my next car purchase. Who wants to miss a free lunch? Not many, which is why the initial $1 billion allocation for the program was hardly enough.

On the other hand, I really didn’t want a car payment, nor did I want to see the girl who never left me stranded choke to death on liquid glass. (Federal rules mandated that every trade-in run on a sodium silicate solution until the engine block locked up.)

So, I was relieved when my vehicle’s end of life question got pushed to another day. She seemed to purr a little sweeter after that as if to say, “You really weren’t going to ditch me for that bimbo Prius were you?”

No, honey. It was just a moment of weakness in front of a pretty government handout.

The Cash for Clunkers program seemed so surreal: A central government entices its citizens to relinquish valuable assets in order to splurge on equipment they may have likely purchased in the near future anyway.

The relinquished (and running) vehicles, which could be used to, say, transport jobless citizens to promising employment across town, are then destroyed.

If the goal was pollution reduction, perhaps cash for clunky heavy machinery, locomotives and transport trucks would have gotten us fewer fumes for our buck.

And if the goal was economic stimulus, we should have put the dollars into research and development in order to manufacture sooner the powerful, spacious, affordable, high-mpg vehicles that sell on every weekend of the year, not just the three in August when Uncle Sam brings his checkbook.

Back to Schools

If you can read this, thank a teacher. Ask him to hang in there while you’re at it.

Texas’ student dropout woes are receiving increasing exposure. Another trend deserves attention, as well: teacher dropout rates. Studies show that half of new teachers won’t make it to year five.

On the opposite end of the career spectrum, many have dropped out mentally and are merely hanging on for retirement.

What can be done?

Reduce class sizes. The state currently limits classes to 22 students. However, waivers to this requirement are granted routinely. The ideal size for a group of disciples? Twelve. My source? The New Testament.

Such a shift puts teachers more in the role they aspired to originally: inspirer. And less in the role many find themselves in currently: crowd control.

With nearly 100,000 new students statewide each year and no significant new funds in sight, how in Texas is that possible?

Empower parents. Of all the hearings I endured … I mean, enjoyed … as a legislative aide, none was as compelling as a House Public Education Committee meeting on school choice.

The hearing was moved to the Capitol Extension Auditorium in order to accommodate hundreds of mostly minority, inner-city parents from Houston. Their message: “Free our kids from the burning house that is Houston ISD. Give us private school vouchers!”

School choice would help relieve the population pressures on public schools. Simultaneously, it would add healthy competitive pressures that naturally come with innovative entries to a field.

Reform “accountability” mandates. Undoubtedly, measurement has its place. But the accountability pendulum has swung too far. The web of requirements from state and federal agencies has left most teachers mired in a malaise and most districts top-heavy with administrators. Scaling back on management will free up funds for the front lines.

Is there a risk that isolated educators won’t teach the basics? Sure. But most will be freed up to teach in ways that impact lives.

I don’t remember many facts from Mrs. Baird’s 11th grade history class, but I certainly caught her passion for the past. As Prof. Wray said, “Education is what you remember after you’ve forgotten everything you’ve learned.”

Reward full-time parenting. There is no dispute that America’s education woes begin at home. Expecting a teacher to prepare a child for adulthood is like asking a youth minister to impart morality to a teenager. Neither will happen apart from a solid foundation at home.

Today, many couples view two incomes as a necessity, not a luxury. Kids, shuttled between care providers, usually pay a price that “early childhood education” cannot refund. To help reverse this trend, Congress should grant a federal income tax credit for parents who forego the workforce in order to invest in their children.

Parents are the last great hope of children worldwide. They provide the foundational values that make the rest of the education process meaningful. They articulate and demonstrate what it means to contribute to society.

If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you did read this, thank a parent.

Obama on Health Care: “Trust Me”

My wife will attest that I have a selective memory, but I don’t recall previous presidential administrations arguing so adamantly that their agendas were being so misrepresented. I recall opposition to policy positions, of course, but never the claim that opponents were flat-out lying.

Internet bloggers and mass e-mailers have apparently spread so much misinformation about President Obama’s health care proposal that it’s endangering real reform. Really? So much for the bully pulpit. The bully keyboard evidently has taken over.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell once said that “great leaders are almost always great simplifiers.” For as gifted an orator as Mr. Obama is, one might think that he could clearly and simply lay out the components of Congress’ health care legislation.

He has not, likely because he doesn’t want to detail its punitive aspects and its welfare state expansion. (In June, he stated that “the public option is an important tool to discipline insurance companies.” Is that not what markets are for?) Instead, he has played the victim, pointed the finger and painted in broad strokes. (“If you like your doctor, you can keep him.”)

Mr. Obama urgently pushed the $787 billion stimulus bill earlier this year. Enacted less than a month after he took office, he pressed it through in fine political “trust me” fashion.

Hindsight reveals that the bill hardly staved off economic disaster and could have used considerable, if not wholesale, refining.

This time around, Joe and Jane Plumber are refusing to trust him. They are reading the phone book-sized legislation, finding disconcerting parts and telling their friends.

If the legislation doesn’t mean what the bully keyboarders write, can’t the Communicator-in-Chief smoothly straighten out the misunderstanding?

There must be more than he’s letting on. Why else would the legally trained, lacy-lipped legislator-turned-executive move to an ad hominem argument attacking the e-mailers rather than the substance of the e-mails?

Why else would his office enact its own “scare tactic” by collecting the e-mails and addresses of those opposing Obama’s version of health care reform?

The short answer: it can’t be defended on the principles that have made our country great.

The Texas Triangle Revisited

In his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell discusses the sociological reality that those who have are often given more while those who do not have tend to get even less. For example: interest paid to the wealthy, top students getting the best instruction, the biggest 10-year-olds receiving select athletic coaching. Gladwell refers to Jesus’ parable of the talents in Matthew 25 where a fearful servant fails to invest his money. He gets stripped of it and tossed into darkness. Texas should heed the warning.

Through a smart tax structure, a business-friendly regulatory environment, a self-controlled Legislature and a diversified economy, Texas sits economically healthier than any other major state.

It learned some lessons from the 80s. Its Republican leadership has governed well. Because Texas is red politically, it’s black fiscally.

While California cobbled together a state budget that started $42 billion in the red, Texas balanced its budget without major cuts or any tax increases. It kept its $6.6 billion “rainy day fund” whole and expects the fund to grow to $9.1 billion by 2011.

What to do with this “fund balance?” The Legislature could return it to the people. It is over-collected taxes, after all. And $9.1 billion divided by 24 million Texans equals $375 per person. Not a bad bonus in tough times.

Or it could leave the fund alone. But author John Maxwell’s wisdom often rings true: those who carry emergency bags are usually the ones who need them.

Perhaps a collective investment in the economic future of our state is in order. Perhaps high-speed rail’s time has come.

Texas attempted it 20 years ago. The Legislature created a high-speed rail authority to construct a “Texas Triangle” connecting Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. The authority made significant progress, but financing difficulties, lack of federal support, Southwest Airlines and rural opposition ultimately combined to shelve the idea.

Today, Interstate 35 is a death trap. The Trans-Texas Corridor (Governor Perry’s plan to criss-cross the state with separate freight and passenger lanes) is dead. Southwest Airlines is alive and thriving nationwide. Airport security is a pain, especially for short flights.

Earlier this year, the federal stimulus package earmarked $13 billion over the next five years for high-speed rail projects. The money starts flowing later this fall.

Maybe the Texas Triangle should be revived in time to get some. The Feds will surely want to see local investment. Unlike most other states, Texas has cash in the bank.

Texas’ population is more concentrated than ever. Two-thirds of Texans (16 million) live in DFW, Austin-San Antonio and Houston. Promoting the exchange of knowledge, ideas and other human resources between these population centers will strengthen our economic vitality and prospects.

If high-speed rail gets us there, it may be a good investment. In our modern, mobile, knowledge-based society, it’s hard to argue that fast, clean and affordable transportation is a bad one.

And the state that has will be given more.


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