Archive for March, 2011

Survey Says

Don’t Know Much About…Us

I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to travel a fair amount – Europe several times, South America, Canada – and after every trip I’ve returned thinking its good to be home, but man we sure don’t know much about the rest of the world.

I remember a trip to Canada a few years ago and engaging in serious conversation with friendly Canadians who seemed to be up on everything happening in the USA from our politics to popular culture. By contrast, most Americans couldn’t find Saskatoon with a GPS device let alone name the Canadian Prime Minister – Stephen Harper – or that the national capitol is Ottawa, not Montreal or Toronto.

Now it turns out we don’t know much about ourselves, either. Newsweek has surveyed 1,000 Americans on the most basic details of our history, government and politics. We flunked. Badly.

The questions aren’t exactly PhD level, either, but are questions that are asked in the official U.S. citizenship test. Questions like: What happened at the Constitutional Convention? How could 65% of those surveyed not know that the Founders wrote the U.S. Constitution at the Constitutional Convention?

Or, how about this. Fully 88% in the survey couldn’t name one person who authored the Federalist Papers. Hint: his wife’s name was Dolley, as in Madison. Maybe those 65% know her donuts and cakes better. And, don’t ask what the Federalist Papers were.

I’ve railed in this space in the past about America’s historical ignorance, but 29% not being able to name the current vice president or 73% not know why we “fought” the Cold War. This isn’t funny. It is worrying.

Newsweek blames several factors for American ignorance, including a generally complex political system that unlike Europe tends to spread control among local, state and federal governments. I guess this is confusing and there is much to keep track of, but that hardly seems an excuse for the fundamental lack of knowledge exposed in the survey.

The decentralized education system gets some blame. What we teach in Idaho they might not teach in Maryland. Some of the blame should go, I think, to those who have de-emphasized history, social studies and the humanities in favor of science and math. Kids need it all, in big doses.

And there is the income and media reality. A growing percentage of Americans are poor, not of the middle class. Poorer Americans have less access to information and knowledge. In Europe, where a larger share of the population lives in the middle, people are generally better educated and much more knowledgeable about their politics and government.

The mass media is both part of the problem and could offer a slice of the solution, but we mostly have a pure market driven media that features much more American Idol than Meet the Press. It is, after all, difficult to take politics seriously when so much of it is trivialized over the air and on the web.

The Newsweek analysis concludes, and maybe this is the good news, “the problem is ignorance, not stupidity.“ One expert who has studied this American ignorance says, “we suffer from a lack of information rather than a lack of ability.”

The real problem here isn’t knowing James Madison authored many of the Federalist Papers, it is not knowing enough – as the current budget debate in Washington, D.C. makes so clear – about our federal government and our political system. It’s impossible to assess, for example, what must be done to fix the budget if we have no idea how the government spends and taxes.

Survey after survey says Americans want Congress to cut the budget by reducing foreign aid and by stamping out that old standby waste, fraud and abuse. At the same time they say whatever you do don’t touch Social Security or Medicare where the real money gets spent. Too many politicians pander this ignorance and we get the endless debates we now witness in Congress.

Simple fact: Americans need information and real knowledge to make sense of their government and then they must care enough to act on the knowledge. Ignorance isn’t a strategy for a great country.

Guns and Porn, Oh My

Solutions in Search of a Problem

The Idaho Senate will this week – choose your metaphor – cock the hammer, reload or take aim at the increasingly controversial issue of guns on the state’s college campuses. The House has already passed the legislation, the Senate may think twice.

Boise State University, the largest Idaho school, where football tailgate parties are arguably even more popular than guns. has played the economic card by raising concerns that events on the campus may be impacted by a proposed state law allowing students, faculty too, to pack a piece to a concert, football game or poetry reading, not to mention biology class.

Idaho is racing Texas to see which state can get the campus gun toting legislation in place first. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has said he’ll sign legislation working its way through, as Molly Ivins used to say, the Texas Leg. Perry is the same governor who suggested a while back that the federal stimulus legislation gives Texas a right to consider secession. Fully armed obviously.

The Los Angeles Times visited the huge University of Texas campus in Austin recently, a place with an awful history of gun violence, and found a mixed reception for the campus gun legislation. In 1966 a student gunman at UT climbed to the top of the campus clock tower and systematically killed 14 people. Ancient history, I guess, in an age when proponents of such legislation argue that having more guns on campus will actually improve safety.

One Texas professor told the Times he welcomed the proposed gun law and said he’d definitely consider taking his piece to class with him if it passes. Not a professor to argue with about a grade, I suppose. At another Texas school, Sam Houston State, a new research project found considerably less support among students. On a scale of zero being not comfortable at all and 100 being as comfortable as you can get, the Sam Houston students clocked in – or is it Glocked in – at 39. A similar survey at a Washington school produced a 33 comfort score. May just be that the students who are, pardon the expression, the target of this campus safety initiative aren’t feeling all that comfortable about how safe they’ll be in English 101. It used to be all you had to worry about was staying awake in class or understanding Milton.

In times of severe economic turmoil like those faced in Idaho and most other states at the moment, I’ve noticed a curious legislative phenomenon. With limited ability for legislators to think big about new buildings or highways, they tend to find solutions to problems that may not really exist. The gun legislation, stoked by the National Rifle Association in Idaho, Texas and a dozen other states, seems to fall in that category. College administrators, the State Board of Education and law enforcement leaders – those closest to the vibe on a campus – are universally opposed to the gun legislation that has only come forward because, well, the NRA says its needed to protect our Second Amendment rights.

As one Texas student said, college is already stressful enough, why add the prospect for even more worry by affirmatively introducing guns to the campus scene? State Representative Cherie Buckner-Webb of Boise said it pretty well: “One can only imagine a college classroom or a campus administrative situation where heated arguments about strongly held political beliefs or disputes about grades or even parking issues result in the use of a concealed weapon.”

Meanwhile, Idaho legislators are also debating a bill to require more actions from public libraries to filter content on computers that library patrons – as in the tax paying public – utilize in vast numbers every day. Another solution in search of a problem.

Full disclosure, I am currently the president of the Boise Public Library Board, and we have long had in place a perfectly sensible policy about computer use. If a parent is concerned that a youngster might go where they shouldn’t on the Internet, we take steps to ensure that won’t happen. But, we also stay away from being the Internet nanny for adults who presumably are smart enough to make their own decisions about how to use a computer.

Both these pieces of legislation are in the one-size-fits-all category of legislating. Not content to leave it to local library boards in individual Idaho communities to figure out the best approach in their neighborhoods and unwilling to trust a college president in Twin Falls or Moscow to know enough about their campus environment to keep them as safe as possible, legislative solutions must be found to non-existent problems.

Guns and computers. Strange that in a largely educational environment – a college campus and a public library – some legislators want virtually unlimited access to one and to substantially limit access to the other.

The Hat is Back…

Adjustment Bureau for Headware

I used to think it old fashioned that my dad always wore a hat. He had a gray one, a brown one, I think, and I vaguely remember a dapper looking summertime straw hat. I never remember seeing him in a cap, but hardly ever remember him not wearing a hat.

Dad would be happy to know that hats are reportedly back in style and I find I’m now just as old fashioned with my hats as I once thought him to be with his.

The new movie, The Adjustment Bureau, some say, is popular culture proof that the hat is back. Maybe. I think Matt Damon looks pretty good in a hat, but have been told his hat is better than the movie.

You can Google men’s hats and find a thousand places to buy them on the Internet. My favorite store is John Helmer in Portland. Great hats. I once bought a hat – a brown Steton “Gun Club” model – at a hat shop in Milwaukee called Jac Donges Hats and Gloves. I still have the hat, but sadly Jac’s place is now a Subway shop.

Bogart wore hats and still got the girl except when he let her go. Al Capone deserved a black one, but his were often white – the gangster fedora.

Don Draper, the mysterious ad man on Mad Men, favors the narrow brim job that sits high on his head. Johnny Depp wears a hat once in a while and looks good, even to guys.

I have a picture hanging in my office of Teddy Roosevelt’s visit to Sandpoint, Idaho. Every man in the photo, and there are a lot of them, has a hat, Teddy included. Franklin Roosevelt wore hats and Harry Truman, too.

John Kennedy reportedly didn’t like hats, almost refused to wear one and when you see JFK with a hat he’s often holding it not wearing it. Date the demise of the snap brim to Camelot. Hats made a brief return under Lyndon Johnson, but folks often made fun of his Stetson “Open Road” model. I liked it. May get one of those one day.

So, back to my hat wearing father. I cherish a picture of him taken in about 1940, I guess. He’s wearing a hat, Bogart-like, big smile on his face (hats do that) and standing in front a very shiny Model A Ford. I like to think he was about to get in that Ford, pick up mom and take her dancing. If I had a Model A Ford, I’d wear one of my hats while driving it. Like father, like son.

Maybe hats are back. But, then again, maybe they never really go out of style. Neil Steinberg wrote a book about all this. He dealt with the Kennedy hat issue and argued that hats went out in the 1960’s when younger guys decided not to conform with the styles of the older generation. What goes around comes around, they say, and today wearing a hat has become a mark of non-conformance.

Maybe you just need to be a little old fashioned, an individualist, to wear one these days. You should try it. Just take it off in a elevator, especially if a lady comes on board. Touch the brim to acknowledge a friend or someone you would like to be a friend and, like Bogart, maybe a Lauren Bacall look-alike will find you charming, witty and worthy of wearing a hat so you can doff it to her.

It couldn’t hurt.

Another War

PhotoThe No Debate No Fly Zone

The truly amazing thing about the “no fly zone” policy adopted over the last few days by the United States and the United Nations is not that it will be imposed on Gaddafi’s Libya, but rather that it was done with virtually no domestic debate, no Congressional action and little effort to bring the American public along.

I know it has become a political non-issue, a quaint detail of American history, but Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution says: “Congress shall have the power…to declare war…”

Make no mistake we are going to war with Libya. The American policeman is walking the Middle East beat, again.

Moreover we are headed into another open-ended, frightfully expensive engagement with scarcely any attempt to define the short, let alone long-term objectives. Set aside for the moment the legitimate debate over whether the “no fly zone” strategy actually works. Might it be appropriate for the president and the Congress to define, in a good deal more detail, just what we hope to accomplish by engaging in a shooting war in Libya.

American anti-terrorism experts are already warning that Gaddafi is entirely capable of retaliating with some non-conventional response – read terror attack – while we spend an estimated $100 to $300 million a week to try and use air power to enforce order on the ground in Libya. It’s estimated that the initial attack on Libya’s command and control capabilities could cost a billion dollars.

Meanwhile, the Congress is virtually paralyzed in a budget debate that may well shut down the federal government in three weeks. We’ll spend millions to enforce a UN resolution on Libya with no debate, while the Congress runs the government by continuing resolution and bogs down in a completely partisan argument over funding laughably small budget lines for National Public Radio and the National Weather Service.

While the Obama Administration can claim an international consensus to use force against Gaddafi’s military, only one guess is required in the game who will pay most of the cost. The world’s greatest deliberative body – the U.S. Senate, where foreign policy used to be a regular concern – can find plenty of time for posturing over who is responsible for the budget deadlock, but couldn’t find even 15 minutes to debate whether the country ought to send more brave, young Americans into another desert war.

We can all lament the disaster of the Libyan nut job waging war on his own people, but since we’ve equipped Arab air forces from Saudi Arabia to Egypt to Jordan, why not let the vaunted Arab League deal with one of their own? Have we no leverage over the King of Jordan or the princes of Arabia? The most sensible voice in the administration, soon to be gone Defense Secretary Robert Gates, may have made his concerns about the “no fly” strategy know too early, while the rest of the administration struggled to figure out a response.

“Let’s call a spade a spade,” Gates said earlier in March, “a no fly zone begins with an attack on Libya.” He called it a “big operation in a big country” and warned of the unknown unintended consequences of yet more American military engagement in a Middle Eastern country.

We are left to hope that in a week or two no American carrier pilot is sitting in Gaddafi’s custody after being shot down attempting to enforce a no fly zone with no defined objective, no end date and no obvious concern about the human and financial cost…to the United States.

The United States time and again undertakes military action with the expectation that it will be short, painless and sanitary and that the outcome will be entirely to our liking. Funny thing: our wars never seems to work out the way we envision them.

The Great War

It Didn’t End Anything…

The “war to end all wars” didn’t.

In fact the case can be persuasively made that what before World War II was commonly called “the great war” really began a vicious spiral of nearly continuous war, killing and destruction that made the 20th Century the most violent century.

I got to thinking about this after reading a moving tribute in the Washington Post this week to the last American veteran of the great war, Frank Woodruff Buckles. Buckles died recently at the ripe old age of 110. What things he saw in his long life.

Paul Duggan’s Post story made the point that Buckles, a West Virginia boy, was among the nearly 5 million Americans who were in uniform in 1917 and 1918. More than 116,000 of them died. Frank was the last one; a link in a now broken chain back to a time when there was no GI Bill, virtually no health care for returning doughboys and little acknowledgment from either the government or the public.

By 1930 the war was thought by many in the United States to have been a great mistake, a fight not ours that had scarred – and scared – a generation. Isolationism dominated American foreign policy and the U.S. Senate even investigated the “merchants of death,” who many thought had profited from the wartime sale of American munitions.

Today, its the World War II “greatest generation” that gets the attention, but it was the war Frank Buckles and his generation fought that really defined the 20th Century. The war now mostly relegated to the dusty back shelf of American history still echoes down to us today in so many ways.

The modern map of Europe and the Middle East is the result of that war. We now have a modern democracy and a NATO ally in Turkey. The Ottoman Empire ended with the war. The last Russian Tsar was ushered out and Lenin and eventually Stalin ushered in as a result of that war. The war brought an end to emperors in Germany and Austria-Hungary and made France and Britain fearful of the rise of the Bolsheviks, but even more fearful of another European war.

An Austrian corporal injured in a gas attack in that war, used the defeat of Germany and its allies as a springboard to create what became the horrors of Nazism. Winston Churchill knew both glory and defeat in the great war and at its end helped invent the country where today American soldiers still try to create a democracy. Iraq, born of the great war and always an unnatural nation, has long been a violent and troubled place.

Woodrow Wilson, a prickly idealist about many things, thought the world – and his own nation – would study the horrors of the trenches, the gas attacks, the vast machine gun slaughter, and conclude that nations must band together to ensure a lasting peace. By 1920, Wilson couldn’t get the U.S. Senate to support his grand ambition of a League of Nations. By 1931, Japan had invade Manchuria, Hitler and his followers where marching in the streets of Bavaria and Mussolini was planning a “new Roman Empire” that would begin with the conquest of Ethiopia.

By 1939, barely 20 years after the war to end all wars had sputtered to a uneasy conclusion in muddy fields in France, most of the world was at war again.

World War I produced Captain Harry Truman, who served in France, and Lt. Col Dwight Eisenhower, who never got out of the country. George Patton saw action as the first U.S. tank commander in France and Ernest Hemingway and Walt Disney were both ambulance drivers. Hermann Goering learned most of what he needed to know to command the German Luftwaffe as a World War I fighter pilot.

It was Frank Buckles’s fate to be the last solider of the great war. We should remember him for what he did and remember his war for what it did, too.

The Union Way

SolidarityThe Great Battle

When the shipyard electrician Lech Walesa led the trade union movement in Poland in the 1980’s, he and his movement – Solidarity – were the toast of the West. The Polish Pope received him, Ronald Reagan praised him, the Nobel Committee awarded him. Imagine. Such tributes for a union movement and its leader that, not incidentally, brought down a Communist government.

When young people took to the streets of Cairo recently, commentators noted that Egypt lacks many of the institutions that contribute to a stable democratic society, including having no tradition of unions to represent workers, advocate for better working conditions and, by definition, create a middle class that works. Ironically, the very conservative National Review – usually no friend of unions in the United States – celebrates the impact of new “freedom” for trade unions in the Arab world.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and that state’s GOP majority hav yet to explain why ending collective bargaining rights for public sector workers, particularly teachers, helps improve classroom learning or delivery of public services in the land of the Packers. Same goes for Idaho’s leaders who have gone down the same path, ending collective bargaining for educators.

All this begs a question: Why do we believe a union movement that helps foster true democracy in eastern Europe or the Middle East somehow cuts against the American way here at home? The answer is pretty simply: politics.

You can date the demise of the Democratic Party in Idaho, for example, to the legislature’s passage, after years of trying, of right to work legislation in 1986. The Idaho AFL-CIO, never huge in numbers, had nonetheless traditionally been a force in the state’s politics helping fuel the rise of successful political careers for guys like Frank Church and Cecil Andrus. Right to work started the decline of labor involvement and effectiveness in the state’s politics that continues to this day.

While recent polling indicates that most Americans reject the kind of efforts aimed at organized public sector workers in Wisconsin and elsewhere, there is little doubt that organized labor has failed to find a message and articulate an appeal that begins to explain to millions of non-union American workers why unions are important in Warsaw, as well as in Madison and Boise.

The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg may have identified one line of argument. He wrote recently: “Organized labor’s catastrophic decline has paralleled—and, to a disputed but indisputably substantial degree, precipitated—an equally dramatic rise in economic inequality. In 1980, the best-off tenth of American families collected about a third of the nation’s income. Now they’re getting close to half. The top one per cent is getting a full fifth, double what it got in 1980. The super-rich—the top one-tenth of the top one per cent, which is to say the top one-thousandth—have been the biggest winners of all.”

I’m not sure I understand all the reasons, but it also cannot be denied that while organized labor has lost membership year-by-year since the 1950’s, America’s basic manufacturing infrastructure has also declined at the same time and at a worrying pace. Sadly, I think, the kind of jobs that once employed blue collar guys who carried a lunch bucket to work are not nearly as important to the American economy as they once, and not that long ago, were.

The history of organized labor in America is in the main a story of building a sustainable middle class; jobs for moms and dads with wages that can support a family, pay a mortgage and save a few bucks to send the kids to college.

Have there been excesses during the up and down American labor story, of course. Violence was once a routine part of the unavoidable tensions between management and workers. But where unions remain a force today, as in the rehabilitation of Michigan’s automobile industry, hard headed negotiations – and big concessions – have replaced the sit down strikes that crippled the auto industry in the 1930’s.

The challenge to organized labor now, as it faces fresh assaults across the board, is to convince more Americans that banding together and advocating a position with your employer isn’t un-American, but actually a vital part of a sustainable democracy.

Andy Stern, one of the more forward-looking labor leaders in the country before his retirement, recently gave a fascinating interview to the Washington Post.

Here is one line from Stern’s interview that pretty well sums up the challenge organize labor faces: “We [organized labor] need an ideology based around working with employers to build skills in our workers, to train them for success. That message and approach can attract different people than the ‘we need to stand up for the working class!’ approach. That approach is about conflict, and a lot of people don’t want more conflict.”

True, but Americans do want good, middle class jobs. If a vital, constructive union movement is good enough for democratic Poland or for the democratic aspirations of Egypt, maybe it could work again here.