Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Dollars, cents and nonsense on immigration

  "Billions and billions."

  Where is Carl Sagan when we need him to provide the proper intonation?

  Billions — $200 billion — in fact, is what the Congressional Budget Office says would be shaved off the federal deficit in 10 years with passage of the immigration reform bill gaining steam in the Senate. Look 20 years down the line and the CBO sees savings of $700 billion.

   Increased productivity. Increased taxable income. More economic contributors emerging from the shadows.

   Quickly, opponents jumped on the numbers, saying they are too rosey. Let this be said: Even if the CBO projections are 20 percent off, 50 percent off, 80 percent off — the savings are still "billions and billions."

   Sadly, and not unexpectedly, Senate negotiators have been forced into concessions to make the investment in new citizens much less fruitful.

   The key concession: $30 billion more over the next 10 years for border security. This includes 20,000 new agents — a doubling of today's force — and 18 new unmanned drones.

    Most dubiously, it involves 700 additional miles of fencing. People on the border know that though some places can be fenced, some are as unfenceable as the Milky Way, particularly among the Rio Grande's cliffs and chasms.

    That doesn't matter to many whose fears about illegal immigration are myth- and hysteria-based. They never met a fence they didn't like, and wouldn't blink to spend the billions to make it triple-layer.

   They think that the nation spends too little on border security now. Truth: The federal tab for border security is $18 billion a year, more than all law enforcement agencies combined.

     Truth: Illegal immigration has dramatically slowed, with more arrests, more deportation, and fewer border crossings.

     And so even a Republican like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham shakes his head at what he calls a "border surge."

    He says, "We have militarized our border almost."

    "Militarized." Did he say the magic word needed to pass this sucker?

     Proponents of the so-called Gang of Eight bill say such a concession may be necessary to have any hope at all in the tea party-controlled House.

    Hard-right Senate fence-sitters (no pun meant) Republicans Bob Corker of Tennessee and John Hoeven of North Dakota  proposed the hyper costly security splurge. Whatever happened to fiscal conservatism, senators?

    Ah, forget that when it comes down to any word with "military" as a root.

   We have seen time and time again, since Reagan's historic shift of spending from domestic programs to arms, and through the off-budget funding of two wars under Bush-Cheney (while cutting taxes), that some people have never seen a defense-tinted spending bill they would oppose.

    Dwight Eisenhower wasn't talking about military readiness when he said, "Every dollar uselessly spent on military mechanisms decreases our total strength and, therefore, our security." He was talking about all else sacrificed in that spending's wake.

    Nonetheless, he knew how best to appeal to those who would never spend a dime otherwise, even to bring America into the 20th century.

    When it came to building the nation's interstate system, Eisenhower winked at what was coined the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956. "Defense"? Well, of course; it was all about, um, transporting troops, not families in station wagons to favorite vacation spots.

   Yes, maybe the only way to get the mad hatters aboard in Washington will be to make these very absurd concessions. Borrowing from Ike, call this bill the Border Militarization De-Fence Act, and throw $30 billion down the rat hole.

    According to the CBO, we'd still save billions and billions.

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










Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Quoth the climate deniers: "What fires?"

   And so it begins again, and on cue.

   Like an incendiary device on a timer, summer has turned patches of Rocky Mountain paradise into scenes of fiery hell.

   The people of Colorado are beginning to wonder if for the foreseeable future they are locked into four seasons: fall, winter, spring and wildfire.

   A year to the day after the state's worst cumulative fire season began — a season that stretched almost into December — the fires began again.

   A year after the most destructive fire in state history, consuming 346 homes in the foothills west of Colorado Springs, a successor on the northeast outskirts of town dwarfed it. The Black Forest fire destroyed more than 500 homes. Two people died.

  Much like a year ago when they burned in the Rockies from Idaho to New Mexico, wildfires have burst out in multiples.

   I know this isn't what some readers want to hear, particularly if Fox News is their choice for information, but these events answer a question that by now should be beyond debate: Hell, yes, the climate is changing.

   We are cautioned, and well should be, about assigning temporal events to big-picture concerns like climate change. Temperatures spike. Cold snaps snap. But what's happening in the Colorado high country isn't transitory. It's long-term and caused by fundamental changes.

   The canary in this coal mine is a dead ponderosa pine — or hillsides of them killed by the mountain pine beetle.

   The insect thrives because of warmer temperatures. Without a few successive days of 40 degrees below zero each winter, the beetles live to eat and breed. They then convert lush forest to brittle kindling. 

   In no way can one blame all these fires on said pestilence. Drought is the No. 1 villain, as Texas experienced in 2011 when 1 million acres and 2,862 homes were destroyed by fire.

   Texas, of course, is one of those places where global warming and global desiccation do not exist, at least in the minds of policy makers.

   It's always interesting to hear from people who clip along without these concerns, like a reader from Vero Beach, Fla., who wrote the local paper to report that "true scientific minds are saying that the earth will be cooling for the next 10 years."

   Thinking I might have missed a big story, surely "breaking" on Fox News, I bounced this off someone who pays closer attention to these matters than I do.

    Andrew Dessler of the Texas A&M Department of Atmospheric Sciences is co-author of The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change.

   "As time goes on, climate skepticism becomes further and further divorced from reality," he told me. "If you look at the temperature record, 2005 and 2010 were tied for the two warmest years of instrumental record. I really don't understand how someone can claim that Earth has either stopped warming or is actually cooling."

     Reality? Here's some:

     The Associated Press calls rising sea levels "a predicament facing the entire Caribbean." Hundreds of villages are threatened.

     Even the CEO of Exxon Mobile, Rex Tillerson, last June acknowledged that climate change is real. His suggestion as to what mankind should do? He said we should get used to it.

    Also in the Reality Department, scientists recently confirmed carbon dioxide levels of 400 parts per million in the Arctic, levels harking back to the overheated Pliocene era when sea levels were 60 to 80 feet higher.

    Troubling to you?

    Let's just say this: Come hell or high water, some Americans are going to ignore either matter.

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

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

'Tents' in need of revival

  Three words for some thoughtful young Republicans concerned about the future of their party: Save your breath.

  Those worried that the GOP is losing traction with young voters know exactly who runs the party today: its most reactionary — meaning least conciliatory — faction in generations.

  So the College Republican National Committee could have saved precious ink and said "the heck with" rather that issue a new report urging open minds on gay marriage, immigration, even taxes.

   Forget it. Unlike the GOP that 20 years ago advertised a "big tent," today's GOP acts more like a bearded sect that chops wood, hunts squirrels and hides out in the hills.

   Try sell changing times to that. You'll see no attempt here.

    I am, however, going to make a stab at another American institution that stands to see its influence wane: the church.

    This matter occurred to me the other day when reading that some churches now refuse to allow Boy Scout troops to use their premises after the national organization decided to admit gay scouts.

     At that very time, I was reading a book about how religious leaders stepped to the fore to support civil rights in the '60s.

     I have no trouble seeing gay rights as carrying the same heroic imperative.

     It took one of my sons to say it just the way it needs saying:

     "The bones of the church are going to break" because of anti-gay attitudes, he said.

     Americans under 30, he pointed out, overwhelmingly support for gay marriage. And the issue isn't the slippery-slope "definition of marriage" word game conservatives wish to play. You know: Beware of that day when a man can marry his snake and a woman can wed her golden retriever.

    No, the issue was equality.

    Vast numbers of young people, he said, "don't believe in a religion that doesn't believe in equality."

    Kiss that demographic goodbye. Unless . . .

    Unless more churches come to see select passages in the Old Testament as rusted levers for oppressive impulses, just as in the days of lynchings and White Citizens Councils.

    Let's face it. If Genesis 1:24 — "Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind" — meant in the Klan's heyday that God commanded races be separate, it means that today. Does it?

   Enough Bible verses here. Let's turn instead to a statement from an individual straining to justify the exclusionary policy the Boy Scouts just changed.

   He said the Scouts' decision was unnecessary, because 12-year-olds don't have a clue about their sexual orientation, and because the Boy Scouts have always welcomed all boys.

   What he chose not to mention is that at some point quite a few Scouts will have come to understand they have a different sexual orientation. Gay Eagle scouts were among those pressing for a change in policy.

    As to that hypothetical 12-year-old: Let's say he's gay and doesn't know it, or won't know it for a couple of years. We welcomed him as a child into all things childlike. Short of misconduct that harms others, how could we possibly revoke that invitation?

    This brings us back to the civil rights marches of the '60s:

    Just as plentiful as were the bold church leaders who staked their reputations and risked their lives for what was right, so too were the churches committed to not upsetting the racist status quo.

    Acknowledging the allure of the status quo, it would seem to be high time for more churches to step up and lead in this quest for equality.

    Or, like today's GOP, they can continue to give 'em that old-time division.

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

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

A school rebellion bubbles over

  We all know when a popular revolt succeeds. Someone gets overthrown. At what point, however, does a historic, full-scale rebellion take wing? Always hard to tell.

  The revolt we discuss here involves bad policy and public schools. A climactic victory has yet to come. But let me fancy this notion:

  What now simmes across the countryside took wing a few years ago when a certain overstressed Texas third grader of whom I know threw up on her state test.

  She wasn't the first; nor will she be the last.

  Let's assume for narrative's sake that this third-graders' angry parents took note, however, and made sure their state representative knew, too.            

  Of such matters are movements made.

  Policy makers finally are coming to understand the unnecessary pressure, the costliness, the nonexistent diagnostics, the false comparisons, the lost time, the expense, the whole of the nation's pathological lap dance with standardized testing.

  In recent weeks and months these things have happened:

  — The Texas Legislature voted overwhelmingly to dramatically scale back a battery of high school end-of-course tests. Lawmakers also voted to exempt high-achieving students from certain state exams.

  — In Seattle, a heroic teacher boycott of the Measure of Academic Progress — MAP — standardized exam influenced the district to drop it.

  — Arizona, Nevada and Alabama lawmakers voted to do away with clunkily arbitrary high school exit tests and re-examine their function.

  For Texas lawmakers to do what they did in this session is akin to communists taking sledge hammers to the Berlin wall. Texas is, of course, the "cradle of accountability," from whose ideological loins sprang the unenforceable "one-size-fits-y'all" No Child Left Behind policy.

  Oh, and by the way, 35 states including Texas have sought exemptions from NCLB requirements.

  It is in the Lone Star State that former Education Commissioner Robert Scott said the overemphasis on testing had become a "perversion" of a system originally meant to give policymakers a quick read on basic skills statewide.

   The result, said State Rep. Mark Strama in the Texas Tribune, is a "culture of testing rather than learning."

    A rudimentary system that began in 1979 with basic-skills tests for third-, fifth- and ninth-graders became a bovine stampede.

  One of the most exciting things that Texas lawmakers did this session was vote to limit the number of benchmark tests — those given by school districts to see if lessons are linking up with state test criteria. One Texas grade-school teacher told me that adding these nuisances into the mix, she sacrificed 16 instructional days a year to testing ordered from above.

  Credit parents with turning this tide. The grassroots Texans Advocating for Meaningful School Assessment — TAMSA — now offers a counterpoint to the big-money, pro-testing Texas Association of Business.

   "We thought it was just Texas parents" alarmed and disgusted, TAMSA's Susan Kellner, a Houston parent and school board member told NBC News. But "across the country a similar sentiment is starting to bubble up."

  Funny that she should say "bubble," because that's what it's been all about — the quest to make the whole of education fit into those little testing bubbles, a whole booklet of bubbles spoiled when said overstressed third-grader lost her lunch.

  Know that the Texas Education Agency was alert to this prospect. Per procedure, her despoiled exam was bagged and shipped to the state capital like your standard crime implement.

  I trust it is still in state custody.

  Someday, like pieces of the Berlin wall, that little girl's book of unfilled bubbles will be a souvenir of an oppressive and counterproductive educational past.

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