Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Progressives' sound of silence

   Dukaki — n., pl.; (1) progressive politicians vaporized at the polls for campaigns in which they chose not to tell voters what they stand for; (2) Candidates who go out with no bang, only whimpers.

   We start this discussion with a fact: The stimulus bill worked. USA Today veritably screamed it in an editorial last week. An independent panel of economists, including those on retainer with Republicans, said as much.

   Democrats, have you said as much? I can't hear you.

   True, what Washington and the Obama administration have accomplished has not restored the nation to the rosy-cheeked complexion it had before two wars waged on credit, the wages of uncontrolled funny money in lending, and whatever else "running government as a business" wrought when we contracted it to Bush-Cheney Corp.

    But, tell me this: Which phrase have you heard more often:

   (1) Obama's bloated stimulus program failed;

   (2) The stimulus bill created 2.7 million jobs and saved millions more.

    No contest. You've heard claim No. 1 more often, by multiples of, maybe, 1,000 — though it's a lie.

    Indeed, what the president and a Democratic majority in Congress did was prevent a second Great Depression. So says Mark Zandi, one of John McCain's own go-to men on economic policy.

      That's not all. The stimulus bill's heavy focus on state aid regarding public necessities like education prevented countless layoffs in school districts and state agencies that serve us every day.

     The daring effort to rescue automakers kept 1 million Americans working.

     Sure, you can pick at it any way you want: It was indiscriminate spending. It was too timid. Indeed, Nobel economist Paul Krugman continues to shout his face blue saying the latter.

     Whatever the case, here's what Zandi and others said: Without the sum of the efforts, including the rescue of banks, our unemployment rate would be 16 percent instead of where it is today, hovering at 10 percent.

    Every American ought to know this, that the dollars borrowed this time went to provide jobs for us and our needs, rather than to, say rebuild bridges and water systems our bombs blew up in elective warfare.

     Every American ought know how Obama and the Democrats directed an astonishing chunk of the stimulus outlay — $94 billion — to alternative energy and energy conservation in ways that will be paying off long after this Great Recession is consigned to history books.

     Back during the Great Depression, federal dollars went to make-work projects on such niceties as improving national parks. Good for us. Better for us:  In this recession, public dollars went to match private investment — $2 from investors for every dollar we spent, for instance, in cleaner energy and more energy-efficient structures, with a massive retrofit of federal offices.

     In the latest Rolling Stone, Tim Dickinson has a checklist of the Obama administration's accomplishments, and comments from historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin and Douglas Brinkley. They say the obvious: In the midst of economic times that rarely have been tougher, Obama has put more progressive "notches on his belt" — in Goodwin's words — than anyone since Lyndon Johnson.

     Who is proclaiming this success? Democrats seeking re-election? Progressives? The silence is suffocating.

     One person admittedly late to the game is President Obama himself. However, on his trips to several states last week to boost the efforts of fellow Democrats, he sounded the charge that progressives should heed and that a lot — a majority — of Americans want to hear. He sounded like a fighter.

     Guess what? From that short, vigorous effort, the most recent Newsweek poll shows Obama's favorability jumping 6 points, up to 54 percent. You know, sometimes it pays to show some passion. Progressive candidates: Are you fighters? Or are you Dukaki?

     For goodness sakes, people. Stand up for what you believe in, and speak out against the din that threatens to return this nation to the days when oil executives wrote environmental laws and Enron was the nation's business model.

     Yes, candidates, I'm talking to you. Then again, you voters — you who have memories longer than a 30-second attack ad — you've been sitting on your tongues, too.

      Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Thank God and Zenith for 'mute'

     My wife expressed alarm that the mute on the TV remote is being unresponsive, or at least slow on the draw. I suggested that the problem is simply structural fatigue.

     A mopey mute is a serious matter right now. Put in personal terms: Through Nov. 2, if viewing TV — baseball and football most pertinently — the remote is my only protection from that one decisive political hammer that will cause my head to split apart like a jack-o-lantern flung from a horseman.     

     Doesn't matter the party. Doesn't matter the issue. The human brain can take only so many accusations.

      Zenith is credited with developing the first TV remote control in the 1950s. Sure, that was 60 years ago, but I must acknowledge this to be a relatively recent revelation from where I sit. Sure, throughout the '80s and '90s, we had a remote in our house, but for most of that time it was the VCR's, and therefore with no mute function.

      When the blessed mute became a way of life for us, I realized how effectively we were circumventing the misleading appeals any number of political thugs and merchandizers were purveying. (See: "War on Terror.")

      Now we are in the throes of a campaign stretch where unprecedented amounts of anonymous cash are directed at midterm elections. The claims are presented under the names of organizations we've never heard of and which one can assume are headquartered on the disk drives of party schemers. And their appeals — have they ever been more outlandish?

      Sadly, we know they work. In their incessancy, they drill their way into voters' crania.

      The result: People who are highly discriminatory consumers when choosing, say, margarine or bleach, become slobbering zombies at the polls, sawdust seeping from their ear canals.

      Now, in case you are saying, "I don't remember it being this bad before," and someone says, "Well, you just don't remember" — the fact is that you're mind isn't playing tricks on you.

       The tricks being played on your mind are coming from a swelling tide of anonymous corporate donors.

       The Supreme Court gets credit for this.

       Its ruling last year effectively equating money with free speech, lifting controls on corporate campaign contributions, bequeathed upon the land more loose campaign cash than ever before for an off-year election.

        The same anonymous and unchecked forms of untraceable campaign loot that gave us Watergate are back in currency. By review, the forces of Richard Nixon did their dirty tricks with $22 million in secret donations. One can only imagine what favors were exchanged, and to what political and public policy ends.

       So, the issue is on two planes: first, the plane of politics and policy; second, the plane at which messages intersect with the inner ear and render the human brain to the watery consistency of the Hawaiian finger dish known as poi.

       Against this, we have two chief allies. The first is Common Cause, the organization that sprang out of the Watergate era and committed itself to rooting out the corruption that comes with unrestrained campaign gifts. The second is the TV remote — principally "off" and "mute."

       Common Cause is pushing Congress to pass the DISCLOSE Act, requiring corporations and unions to publicly stand by the content in the ads themselves — "just as candidates for Congress must now stand by ads financed by their campaigns."

        After a round of unchecked, anonymous campaign dollars, policy makers must take the initiative and force companies to fess up.

        In the meantime, we, the consumers must protect and conserve our neural tissue. The impulse starts at the brain, channels through the wrist, and ends at the finger. The mute. Yes. Give these shameless barkers the finger.

        Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Out of homelessness' depths

DENVER — Actually doing something about homelessness seems like the stuff of fifth-grade essays or beauty queens’ answers of 25 words or less.

But it takes more than 25 words for Mike George to explain how he sank into the social chasm that nearly left him a corpse on the pavement.

It took more than 25 words for someone from an initiative called Denver’s Road Home to get him to think he could turn his life around.

Mayor John Hickenlooper, in his run for governor, could impress voters by pointing out the success the city-spawned initiative has had. But that would take more than 25 words air time. And he’d be the first to admit how many others had hands in something that’s gone from impressive to stunning.

In five years, the city effort has found jobs for 5,200 homeless people. It claims to have prevented over 5,500 families from becoming homeless. A vast network that includes new units for people without homes, referral for jobs, and drug and mental health treatment made this possible. It is collaboration with a capital “C” fit for Colorado’s flag.

Mike George wasn’t going to be homeless long back when Jerene Petersen from Denver’s Road Home engaged him in conversation. He wasn’t long for the streets, because he was dying. The military veteran had had a heart attack and suffered from congestive heart failure. Age: 44.

“Between sleeping outside and in dirty, abandoned houses, in alleyways, and in and out of jail, pretty much eating anything you can get your hands on — malnutrition, exhaustion — there’s wear and tear on a body,” he said.

George was homeless for 21 years, dating back to the loss of a job and family trouble in his Alabama home. He described the self-perpetuating nature of the problem. No address? No phone? No references? No bed? No bath? No job, pardner. He didn’t start out with a drinking problem. A drinking problem found him, though. Pain needed dulling.

“It’s hard to feel human when the world looks at you like you’re a disease,” he said.

His talk with Petersen, then a member of the Denver Street Collaborative, was where a life-saving turnaround began.

“For the first time in a long time, someone wanted to sit there and have a cup of coffee with me,” he said. He agreed to investigate what Denver’s Road Home offered. And like pulling someone out of a collapsed mine, the life-saving process began, slowly, delicately.

Exchanges like that between Petersen and George wouldn’t have happened without many other conversations involving the city, downtown merchants, charities, churches, and the federal government.

Amber Callender, executive director of Denver’s Road Home, said one of the keys for the initiative has been providing what it calls “permanent supportive” housing for the homeless. The effort has a goal of 3,000 units over 10 years. It is now nearly 2,000.

How possible? Federal dollars, for one, including funds from the 2008 stimulus package and through Housing and Urban Development. Denver’s Road Home, a creation of the city, has matched the public funds with a staggering charitable haul: over $46 million, with Mile High United Way being a key player.

Of that $46 million, $1.5 million came from Rick Schaden, founder of Quiznos’ Subs. The first shop in his restaurant empire, at the corner of 13th and Grant, is across the street from what once was a place where out-of-town state lawmakers stayed within walking distance of Colorado’s gold-domed state capital. Over time, it became the home of pigeons and rats. Mercy Housing, a national nonprofit which fights homelessness, bought the 1927 boarding house with $1.5 million from Schaden’s foundation and big help from Fannie Mae and Denver’s Road Home. Its 66 units serve formerly homeless people, each in various stages of moving toward self-sufficiency.

Driving Denver’s initiative is an appreciation of the cost of homelessness, and the benefits of stopping the cycle.

Federal figures show that each homeless individual ends up costing a community $40,000 a year in services ranging from incarceration to emergency room treatment (Mike George’s heart attack) and more.

It costs roughly $15,000 to house and direct someone toward services that could turn his or her life around.

After leaving the alleys and stairwells behind for detox, and then transitional housing and counseling at a place called Cherokee House, Mike George’s next big step was when he got a job at the Aurora Veterans Home as a staff resident.

Now, to awaken each day is not to face a nightmare in broad daylight.

Four years after a conversation with a person representing a community that decided to care, he said, “I’m still pinching myself.”

It started with a conversation that, by necessity, had to exceed 25 words.

Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Of grease catchers and super heroes

     The man in the good suit and great hair came expecting to make a sale: He prefaced it with, "I know you care about children."

     He was talking about education, and since I wrote about it a lot, he figured, well . . .

     It turned out that the man cared a little less than he and his full-color literature implied — literature promoting school vouchers. He talked of "failed" public schools, and of this glossy opportunity for children to escape. But I solicited his reaction to this premise:

     "If we had the policy you prescribe, would public schools not be reduced to the function of grease catchers for those left behind?"

      "Sad to say," he shrugged, "that's already the case."

      I know we're supposed to praise Davis Guggenheim's new film Waiting for Superman. We who care about children, that is. But, wait.

     The film compels audiences to root for students hoping to be delivered from their neighborhood schools to super-heroic charter schools. It depicts teachers unions as agents of decay and statism, and entrenched bad teachers as the root of the problem.

     It depicts uber-dedicated parents. It doesn't depict parents who don't give a damn. Parents are always the component that proponents of "market-driven" education solutions never mention. Involved parents are the real X factor in student success. Also, there's the self-selection factor: the parents putting their children where they want, and exclusive schools turning away whomever they want.

       Face it. For good reasons, vouchers have failed to gain traction, making charter schools the latest flavor of the month.

        As with private schools, some charters are great. But Waiting for Superman acknowledges that only about a fifth of charters produce "amazing results." I'm thinking, even with their problems, even with the challenges they can't slough off onto anyone else, public schools bat that average.

      Whatever the percentage, the dance with charter schools is full of contradictions and rhetorical dishonesty. The New York Times' Gail Collins reminds readers of Texas' irresponsible pedal-to-the-metal creation of charters in the '90s without a hint of accountability to the taxpayers. I observed the land rush with a wince, as bad charters trundled out onto the plains, creaky wagon wheels underneath and canvas flaps overhead.

       It didn't matter that dozens were fly-by-night operations that left educators and children stranded. Never have I seen "throwing money at a problem" so vividly depicted — and by Republicans.

       The travesty about policy makers who see charters as a salvation is that the very element that they advertise — schools' freedom to be innovative when relieved of many state mandates — is a denunciation of requirements the policy makers themselves have passed and treat as sacrosanct. These are people who never saw a standardized test they wouldn't salute.

       The traditional public school in 2010 is imprisoned by a system that won't let teachers breathe to teach. It struggles under top-down demands every moment of every day. Sometimes the system is so oppressive that teachers in low-performing — read, urban — schools must teach from scripts supplied by the "accountability" industry.

        Just wondering: Is that the environment families seek to flee in their search for Superman?

        If so, what does that say about the people who so hype the promise of charter schools?

        It says that if we want to address the challenges of public schools, we need to ease up on the mandates and let real education commence in all of our classrooms.

        Sadly, Americans somehow have been convinced that standardization is education, and that competence is education. And they elect policy makers maniacally bent on enforcing these principles under the guise of "school accountability."

         Meanwhile, they contemplate whatever gimmick they can conjure to render the heavy lifters, the workhorses of public education into grease catchers.

        Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. E-mail: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.