June 22, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic, recently compounded by the unrest following the George Floyd killing, has placed our public leaders front and center. Our President, placing self-interest above national interest, as always, has failed dismally. Much ink has been spilled on his self-dealing, mendacity and overall poor leadership, and I agree with almost all of it. If I had to pick what I find most distasteful about Trunp, though, it would be easy — at a time when we all need to work with, and show respect to, each other to contain the virus, he has politicized the issues and worked to divide us.

Trump has thrown a bone to the Black Lives Matter movement by calling (weakly) for police reforms and and by ordering an investigation, though I don’t think anyone in or sympathetic to the movement feels he is really taking their concerns seriously. Where he has utterly failed, at a cost of tens of thousands of lives, is in his handling of the corona virus crisis. As a person vulnerable to Covid-19, I view Trump’s refusal to wear a mask, and encouraging those who don’t in the name of freedom, a direct threat to my health and well-being. His holding a rally (aside from the offenses of originally scheduling it on Juneteenth and holding it at a site of anti-Black violence) at which masks and social distancing will not be required is beyond irresponsible – it is a taking advantage of his followers, who no doubt readily will click on the liability waiver they are required to accept in order to attend.

Our Governor, by contrast, has shown good leadership, though he has made mistakes and has resisted taking responsibility for them. Instead of shouting down reports whose questions he doesn’t like (and, when tired of that, discontinuing briefings altogether), he has faced the public every day and has answered questions from the press. His forthrightness and vulnerability (contrary to his former style, which was more authoritarian, leading a character in an editorial cartoon to ask “when can I start hating Cuomo again?) have earned him the trust of many (and the hearts of some) of his constituents. He has resisted the pressure of those desiring to “open up” the economy too soon, and what is happening in other states suggests he is right, though the negative effects on the economy and our mental and physical health of going slow are undeniable, and he does acknowledge them. In my view, he is walking the fine line appropriately.

On Black Lives Matter, he has shown a more genuine concern while responding in a more politically savvy way, kicking the can down to local police departments rather than undertaking any major reforms at the State level.

Another response has been his executive order declaring Juneteenth a paid day off for State workers (at the expense of a public fisc that is teetering on the edge of disaster) which I see as a political giveaway to State employees rather than a serious effort to memorialize Juneteenth and what it stands for (to his credit, the Governor also has asked the Legislature to declare Juneteenth a State holiday, which is the right way to go about it).

Instead of abdicating his role as the counter party to the public employee unions, representing the taxpayers with respect to the collective bargaining agreements that govern the terms and conditions of most State employment, what the Governor should have done, while waiting for the Legislature to act, was to order training and education on racial bias and Black history for all State employees for part of the day.


Another Long Island Railroad scandal

July 10, 2019

I was shocked when the New York Times exposed the abuses by Long Island Railroad employees of their disability benefits, as well as provisions of its labor contracts that no sane company would accept .  Now, perhaps less surprisingly, the New York Post reveals egregious time and leave abuse, allowing some individual employees to rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime for hours they didn’t work.  While some of the workers were able to retire before facing disciplinary action and recoupment of the stolen funds, the taxpayers who subsidize the railroad — already victimized by the railroad’s paying the crooked employees for hours not worked — will continue to pay their crookedly inflated pensions.  If the abuse can’t be stopped (I give Governor Cuomo credit for trying to stop it, albeit belatedly), a big step toward curbing it would be to disallow overtime hours to be part of pension calculations.

Health insurance for some

March 13, 2017

This Times Union story is disheartening, but not surprising.  It’s about legislators hiring rich cronies for part time jobs that pay little but provide State-subsidized health insurance, which is top-of-the-line and costs the employee very little (full disclosure — as a full-time, non-political State employee, and now as a State retiree, I too enjoy this benefit).

What the story doesn’t address, and what should be of broader concern, is the pricing policy for employees and retirees, who are required to pay a share of the cost of their policies.  There are two prices — for individuals with no dependents, and a higher family price for those with any number of qualified dependents.  Thus, the employee with a spouse and no children pays the same premium as the employee with a spouse and 15 children.  I do not know whether the cost to the State is the same regardless of the number of the employees’ dependents, but I do know that State employees with small families are paying a lot more per person for their health insurance than State employees with large families.  While this policy is great for State employees who have large families, it’s not so good for those making up the difference.  Even worse, it’s not a transparent policy — those who are making up the difference are not aware of who they are or how much they are paying.

I’m not saying the policy is indefensible; for example, where government jobs sometimes pay less than the private sector, the family insurance plan may make it practicable for someone with a large family who is an attractive candidate to take a lower-paying State job, which could benefit the public. And it is a way to make health care more affordable to those with larger families and, presumably, less disposable income (though that may not be the case of the part timers in the TU story, one of whom claimed a net worth of over $8 million). What I am saying is that it also presents apparent fairness issues and, as the TU story indicates, an incentive for abuse.  Open discussion of the issue — one that most taxpayers probably are not aware of — might benefit everyone.



More on charter schools

November 6, 2016

This recent column in the New York Times summarizes some studies on charters, and sheds some interesting light.  Apparently, the charters that do the best (and not all even do well) are those that stress the basics — longer days, more support for teachers and students and imposition of high standards.

Aside from reflecting what appears to me to be common sense, these values contrast with those present in many conventional public schools, where shorter work days and more insulation from accountability are the goals of the teachers, as expressed through collective bargaining and political action (many individual teachers put in extra time and strive for excellence, even after achieving tenure).  While I understand teachers’ perceived need for some job protections, and while I believe most tenure “abuses” are caused by management that does not terminate probationary teachers who are unlikely to be successful, there still is a disconnect between the positions of advocates of traditional education and those of the best, successful charters.

If competition produces better results for all, and if charters are to fulfill their original mission as laboratories in which successful teaching methods can be developed and tested, both systems need support.

More apparent public union hyposcrisy

August 5, 2016

PEF, one of the leading state-worker unions, is constantly berating the State for contracting out work that it claims should be performed better and at lower costs by its members.  Here’s a Times Union item that reports the union representing some PEF legal workers has complained that PEF is contracting out some of their work.  Especially ironic is that the contract employees will be representing full dues-paying PEF members, while PEF’s own employees will be representing agency shop payers who have opted out of union membership, a group about which it presumably cares less.

What goes around . . .

August 3, 2016

This little item in the Albany Times Union (the longer story linked to in the item is behind the paper’s pay wall) about the burden of rising pension costs is unusual only because of the employer — NYSUT, the teachers’ union.   NYSUT’s own management is clearly aware of the burdensome costs of benefits for its own employees, and its officers appear to be willing to take a cut while they negotiate similar cuts with their employees’ union.

Of course, NYSUT’s role as bargaining representative for its members is different from its role as an employer, and it is charged by law to represent its members’ interests.  In playing that role in contract negotiations, I don’t think NYSUT would be receptive to the concept of givebacks by its members.

What I suspect I won’t see is any of the school districts asking for the kind of givebacks NYSUT appears to believe warranted with respect to its employees (and leading the way by imposing them on their own staff).  One reason for public employee unions’ great success has been the lack of aggressive counter parties representing the taxpayers in contract negotiations, though I am sure the School Boards’ Association would argue to the contrary.  There are many reasons for this: the understandable urge (especially when spending other peoples’ money) to show appreciation for the good work teachers do, the large financial and political clout of the unions, and the fact that the better the deal for teachers, the better the deal for management, who must of course, be paid more than the rank and file in the trenches. Of course, in a competitive market for teachers, salary and benefits must be competitive, but smart management would make sure they were regardless of union pressure.

Recently, a caller to one of our local public broadcasting stations expressed the dilemma of wanting to support local public education but wanting to remain in his house, which was becoming increasingly  less affordable due to rising school taxes, among other things.  The moderator pooh-poohed him with the usual response — “nothing’s too good for our kids.”

Like that caller, I see both sides, and I certainly don’t want to return to the days of exploitation of teachers.  However, I wonder who is representing this taxpayer, and how strongly.  Only when both sides have equal bargaining power can a reasonable balance of interests be struck.














All that’s wrong with New York’s government

May 23, 2016

This startling story in yesterday’s New York Daily News shows an almost criminal disregard by our Legislature for the taxpayers’ dollar.  It’s another example of how wastefulness or ineptitude by government can turn liberals into conservatives.  Those who would like government to do more ultimately decide that our government should not do more, because it either won’t do the job well or will do it at an unreasonably high cost (some of the overage going to the “corruption tax”).

Consequences of governmental inefficiency are unmet needs, or privatization of traditional government functions. Traditional public education in New York is threatened by charters and alternatives because of its high cost and mediocre results, accountability for which proves elusive.  People vote with their feet and leave the State for places with lower taxes and services that are not appreciably worse than they get here (for example, I can’t think of anywhere, including the deep South, that has roads in worse condition than those in our area).

While people with differing ideologies can and do differ as to the scope of government’s role in our lives, there should be absolutely no disagreement among honest citizens that what government is called upon to do should be done as efficiently and effectively as possible, for the benefit of all, not special interests.  Maybe that is an idea that all citizens can support, putting aside their ideological differences until after it is achieved.

Hotel pet peeves

April 7, 2015

Some good advice I once received was to the effect that you’ve got to be both a big picture and a little picture person to succeed.  In too many cases, ignoring the little picture can detract from a customer’s or client’s perception of the big picture.  A recurring and, for me, frustrating example of this is the labeling of the little containers of hair care and other products one finds in hotels.  Often, as in the illustration below, the size, shape, color and labeling of the containers for shampoo and conditioner is exactly the same, except for the actual word “Shampoo” or “Conditioner” in microscopic print.

hair products

The one place where most of us have poor vision (because we are not wearing our glasses) is where we use these products — the shower or tub.  It makes me wonder if the designer of these packages ever really used them.  I know that if I end up using the conditioner (or, even worse, body lotion) on my hair first, I’ll be slightly annoyed with my hotel stay, no matter how nice everything else might be.  How hard would it be to make these packages in different colors, or with a large S or C on the front?

Another problem I often find in hotels is slow running or non-running drains.  I’m pretty sure that housekeepers run the water in both sinks and showers/tubs when cleaning hotel rooms.  Shouldn’t they be encouraged to report slow or clogged drains to maintenance so they can be fixed before the next guest arrives?

The biggest peeve I have with hotels is the mandatory “resort” or other fees they impose, either for things and services you don’t want, that you would rather be able to purchase a la carte or that were, or should be, provided in the basic cost of the room.  Added mandatory fees  that allow a business to advertise one price but require the customer to pay a different price should be illegal.  If a hotel does not want to include wi fi in its basic rate, that’s OK with me, as long as it’s disclosed.  But don’t surprise me when I arrive by making me pay extra for wi fi or anything else if I don’t want it or need it.

How does something like this happen?

December 11, 2014

Kudos to the New York Daily News for staying on this story.  If only a small part of the fiscal abuse it recounts is true, Mr. Galante should be in prison.  However, the real damage fiscal abuse and waste cause is the eating away of trust and confidence in government, giving credence to the view of many that only the private sector can operate honestly and efficiently.  While I contend that is not even close to being true, stories like this don’t help dispel the myth.

It’s hard enough to convince people of the worth of even honestly-run programs.  When taxpayers feel they are being abused, they won’t even consider the merits.  I can’t say that I would blame anyone who feels that way after reading this story.

My favorite scandal just won’t quit

February 24, 2014