Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Of mad hatters and policy matters

  My friend had a life-threatening problem with his workplace. He was processing film much of every work day and had acquired a serious wheeze. The room in which he worked had no ventilation for noxious fumes.

   He came to me. I suggested he contact the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. All it took was one visit from OSHA, and the problem was solved.

    It's a good thing he didn't go to the new Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Kentucky, Rand Paul. Paul would have told my friend to find another job, that the government has no business telling employers anything.

     The thing is, my friend had another strike against him. He was deaf. He conveyed his dilemma to me with his fingers. Oh, and strike three: He also was Hispanic.

     My friend would be thrice marginalized, almost to invisibility, in the world of Rand Paul. The Tea Party hero thinks the Civil Rights Act went too far in telling private businesses how they could deal with minorities, and also thinks the Americans With Disabilities Act is oppressive.

      Fortunately, Paul is the man on the outside today when it comes to policy, and minorities and the disabled are the beneficiaries of policy makers who understood that sometimes the government must intervene.

       Welcome to the real world, Tea Party revelers. Politics is a lot more than training a loudspeaker on a crowd of funny hats and poorly spelled placards.

      Indeed, with a spokesman like Paul now forced to address real-world issues — that is, beyond the debt that seemed not to alarm said activists until Barack Obama became president — the Tea Party is looking more like a Wonderland derivative than one of Boston Harbor.

      What fun it is to parade around as the offended when you've never faced the offenses behind the Civil Rights Act. How jolly, for those whose health care is insured, to rail against government actions to make that possible for more Americans. (The hatters scream that Congress and the president "rammed it down our throats." Actually, the majority in Congress, and the president, ran on vows to do something. They got elected, then did what they campaigned to do. I think that's called democracy in action.)

      How symbolic it was recently for red-faced protesters at a Tea Party rally to scream at a prone counter-protester who (1) had no health insurance and (2) was unable to stand because of Parkinson's syndrome.

      Listen closely to these protesters. Listen closely to heroes like Paul and Sarah Palin. Ask yourself: Have they a clue? Or are they like the bandolier-bedecked military junta that takes over by force and then is bamboozled by synchronizing traffic lights and making buses run on time?

      Palin is one of the most sought-after speakers of our day, for good reason: She isn't about to say anything at all about snooze-and-lose matters like governing or actual public policy. Who'd be caught dead doing that at $1,000 a plate?

      Paul? What a stand-up dude. After the press started asking him tough (OK, so-so) questions post-primary victory, he became only the third person ever to duck out of "Meet the Press," the other two being Louis Farrakhan and Prince Bandar bin Khaled al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia.

      Palin said that like she, Paul was being victimized by "biased" interviewers. She's right. As with, say, the brutal Katie Couric, who asked Palin what magazines she read, the morning-after pursuers of Rand Paul wanted to know what was in his head.

     The Tea Party has gotten far more attention than it merits. Now when we actually ask for more information, it screams "media conspiracy" and its leaders head for the nearest rabbit hole — a place where, based on the rallies, we presumed all were invited. 

  John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. Email:

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Matriculating from school to prison

      Spring brings two distinct send-offs in every school district. One has school colors, school songs, beaming faces. The other is this: the venting of students with hunched shoulders and vacant expressions.

      One rite — commencement — signifies we did something right. The second send-off signifies that we didn't. It is what happens the moment a community no longer can tell an angry teen that he or she has to be in school.       

      In spring, school districts' alternative campuses are bulging with students who can't get it right, or won't. Their home campuses have been relieved of the burden that was them. No school would want the kind of cumulative disruption and malaise they represent. Indeed, removing them from traditional classrooms is not only reasonable but smart.

       What's not smart is what we do with them after that.

       What we do, basically, is groom them for prison.

       That was the blunt observation of a study of the Texas "school-to-prison pipeline," that "the precursor for many young people's involvement in the juvenile justice system is disciplinary referrals in school."

        That seemingly needs no study. Behind the obvious, however, the study observed something generally ignored and discounted: We miss critical opportunities to redirect young people from paths that lead from school to prison just as surely as Highway 190 leads to Huntsville.

        We particularly miss an opportunity to help young people deal with the anger burning in them that often makes any attempt at traditional discipline utterly futile. 

         In Waco, a retiree named Richard Moore observed this when he volunteered to tutor students in in-school suspension. He might as well have been peddling cod liver oil-flavored snow cones. It was a complete waste, and no one in the school seemed to share his concern about the situation, or the students involved.

   He read about the success Austin's Council of At-Rick Youth — CARY — had in helping middle-school students address anger issues that make learning impossible. Moore set out to get a CARY-like response in Waco. He would not take "no," or "maybe," or "good idea; we'll study it," for an answer.

   Recently the district responded, with a big assist from the state: $500,000 as a Texas Secondary School Redesign and Restructuring Grant. Brazos Middle School and Waco High School will use it to do lots of things, but principally to change how they handle discipline in in-school suspension (ISS). Waco High intends to change its ISS into a center that focuses in part on academics and in part on counseling and anger management. District officials acknowledged that ISS is little more than a place where incorrigible children simmer in their own juices.

      As for alternative schools, they vary in form and quality. Unfortunately, too often they are little more than holding tanks that are understaffed at the start of the school year and are beyond overmatched in May.

     CARY, which deals with middle schoolers who have been referred for discipline, has shown the state what can be done in these schools and in ISS.

      When trained individuals lead young people on a course of self discovery about anger and disruption, they can help a surprising number get back in the learning game. Until that happens, forget about it.

      Texas needs to inventory the practices of ISS across the board, and alternative schools as a class. What are we doing to address the anger that is almost certain to be sprung on the general public when that spring "commencement" rolls around?

    Too often, we address it by finding cellblocks for those young people once those school doors cannot contain them.

      John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Revisiting oil's real cost

   Ultimately, it's all about dollars, don't you know.

   The financial press reports that BP has lost $32 billion in stock market value, oozing away in liquid blackness. Previously identified with green-ness as oil companies go, BP now models a shroud of tar.

    Efforts to contain the mother of all oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico are costing the company $6 million a day. It stands to lose up to $15 billion in said fashion, and many billions in liability claims.

    And it will still make money. Lots, in fact.

    Exxon-Mobil couldn't be doing better. Now 21 years after one of its tankers wrought devastation to the Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska, Exxon-Mobil is the world's largest publicly traded oil company.

     And that should satisfy all. All's well that ends with profits.

      Actually, that is one of the precepts that many Americans came to reconsider in the last two general elections when they turned away from the chorus that put dollar signs above all.

     That's why, for instance, Congress has refused to open the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge to oil production. Drilling there is cynically advertised as securing "energy independence." But oil is fungible, meaning that whatever is harvested, wherever it is harvested, goes into one big global vat. Or what are international markets for?

    Get real. Drilling in delicate places is about dollars.

    So, is the imperative to "drill here, drill now," (as of this writing, "spill here, spill now") with the understanding that some things we value but that don't have a price tag will suffer? Or should a national imperative be to conserve, here, now and into the future? We should all know the answer.

    During a debate in the '90s over a production-heavy energy initiative of the Bush administration, Sen. John Kerry said something very smart. He said that Congress could grant every drop and every kilowatt of energy production the administration sought, and in 20 years "we would find ourselves more dependent on foreign oil than we are today."

      Why? Simple: Under the policies so embodied by BushCheney Corp., we would be consuming at the same rate as before while global supplies dissipated.

       This brings us to the subject of what oil costs. Because dollars matter over all else, we are accustomed to living on the cheap — yes, even at $3 a gallon. But that's only at the pump.

         During the height of America's incursion and occupation of Iraq, the National Defense Council Foundation factored in all the costs associated with oil, including the military costs of securing its supplies overseas, and found that with "hidden costs," the price of gasoline to be $5.28 a gallon.

        If we paid oil's real costs up front, we would use less of it, and ultimately need less of it.

        An intriguing proposal is gaining support in Washington: "cap and dividend." An alternative to increasingly feeble "cap and trade" legislation to curb greenhouse gases, it involves the sale of carbon permits to major emitters of carbon dioxide — as well as those that produce high-carbon fuels like oil and coal — under a gradually tightening umbrella. The "dividend" part would be checks sent to U.S. taxpayers, a la the Alaska Permanent Fund from proceeds for energy leases in that state.

      The sale would cause the cost of energy to go up. Yep. Gas prices would rise. At the same time, consumption would go down. Can't afford this? The truth is we have no idea what we are paying for in our heavy dependence on oil. "Cap and dividend" would provide a far more accurate picture of its real cost.

      We're all paying for it now in the Gulf of Mexico, and only a fraction of the cost is in dollars.

      John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail: