Monday, May 26, 2014

The two worst kinds of user taxes

    "No new taxes." Ah, the sound of spring preening when lawmakers recess.

     Despite these claims, it's amazing how policymakers in "low-tax" states figure out ways to convince voters of their presumed fiscal sainthood.

   Often, they do so with revenue devices which don't impact the many but really sock it to a few.

   Yes, we speak of user taxes, particularly "sin taxes." They are tried and true, and too rarely challenged on the basis of fairness. The same goes for state lotteries, which sock it to the saddest of our sad sacks.

   However, the taxing of smokes, booze and other vices is too obvious among the guilty pleasures of today's fiscal disservatives – emphasis on "guilty."

    Instead, consider the user taxes attached to two things a truly just society would promote: health care and higher education.

    Let's flip a coin and choose one. (No wagering, please.)

    It's heads for health care — and some amazing news that is hardly getting play anywhere, certainly not Fox News: The Kaiser Family Foundation reports dramatic drops in the numbers of uninsured patients showing up at the nation's "safety net" hospitals.

    In Seattle, Harborview Medical Center's proportion of uninsured patients dropped from 12 percent last year to 2 percent this year. This represents a revenue boost of $20 million.

   In northern Colorado, Poudre Valley Medical Center and McKee Medical Center saw a cumulative drop of $24.6 million in charity medical care from 2012 to 2013.

   Colorado and Washington are among the states that expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

    In those states that refused to expand Medicaid? Hospitals continue to absorb the cost of caring for the uninsured. Guess who pays for that? Everyone who otherwise uses the services of those hospitals.

    Yes: a crushing user tax.

    The Urban Institute attached a price tag of $45 billion to caring for the uninsured in 2013. But if $45 billion were the sum of it, maybe we could ignore it. (Write it off; you know, like the costs of waging two wars at once.)

     However, here's something we cannot ignore: People covered by Medicaid or through subsidized ACA policies get ahead of their health-care needs with primary care visits, prescriptions and preventive care. This means fewer costly ER catastrophes that hospitals have to eat.

    policymakers who have resisted the ACA say they are concerned about costs. With their actions, they really aren't concerned about the costs that visit everyone who needs hospitalization. Indeed, they have no answer whatsoever.

   As advertised, this is just one of two punitive user taxes penalizing things we ought to incentivize. The other thing is college education.

   The debt load heaped upon today's and tomorrow's college graduates is a monstrosity. From kindergarten through Grade 12 they were advised that they cannot survive without a college diploma. Then they emerge with that diploma and haul with them a crushing financial burden – this into an uncertain job market.

   We want to blame the colleges for the costs that have made slaves of their graduates. While much can and should be said about those costs (including the criminal syndicate known as textbook publishing), it is unfair to let blue-sky lawmakers off the hook – they who verily flung off their loafers in the rush to cut funding of higher education over the last 20 years. What collegians are paying, with their mountainous debt, is a tax owed to a "no new taxes" environment. They are experiencing the fruits of fiscal disservatism and low-low tax charlatanism.

   While lawmakers were afraid to spread the tax burden among all taxpayers to better support higher education, they had no compunction about dumping on these young people who have scrimped, saved, and studied to achieve what society urged: Get yourselves educated.

    Well, here they are, knowing they, like Americans' remaining uninsured, are the ones to pay for the sins of presumed fiscal saints.

    Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

Monday, May 19, 2014

A little campus outrage

   The first thing that occurs to an observer is that this is a mismatch in weight classes. The big-gutted officers fit in the sumo category. The college students? They fit in the stringy category.

   Stringy but strong-willed, they stand tall — even as they get riot-batoned in their torsos, cuffed and dragged away.

   As troubling as the video is — YouTube it yourself -- it is very encouraging, because this is not Berkeley in 1968. It's 2011.

   The protest? In this case it is about budget cuts' effect on the university.

    Every time students peacefully demonstrate out of civic concern, we should applaud it. Under then-Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, riot police and batons are how Cal-Berkeley handled it.

   Oddly, now it is Birgeneau's free-speech rights on which we are asked to focus.

    Haverford College invited him to address its 2014 commencement. Some students and faculty strenuously brought up the 2011 treatment of the Cal students. Birgeneau withdrew as speaker.

   Horrors, said those who denounced the "political correctness" behind such a blowback and that resulted in, among others, Condoleezza Rice's withdrawing from speaking at Rutgers' commencement.

   Horrors? I say the horror is when students aren't paying attention.

    After all, Rutgers' grads were mere grade schoolers when Rice's "mushroom cloud" warnings helped frighten a nation into eviscerating Iraq.

    Admittedly, these same students were entering college before our fighting forces finally left that shattered land. So, their memory either is short or long. Regardless, it's encouraging that they remember.

  Not surprisingly, these unsettling discourtesies ("Ms. Rice is an international scholar and diplomat") are trotted out as political correctness run amok. Sorry, but whenever the term "PC" is employed, it is generally a lie.

   For much of the previous decade, the true definition of political correctness was to click heels, wear flag pins and salute the "war on terror" (though Iraq had nothing to do with the terror that precipitated its invasion).

    In Bloomberg News, Yale University's Stephen Carter writes that the pushback against these speakers is one against discourse itself. "Congratulations," he says to the offending graduates, "for bringing back the Middle Ages."

     I'm wondering what country or century Carter thought this was when, with dissent as absent as any evidence of Condoleezza Rice's claims, we rolled our catapults into Iraq.

    But back to free speech.

    It's an odd rejoinder when someone like Rice or L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling takes enormous heat for public utterances. (Yes, we know Sterling first expressed his bigotry privately; then Anderson Cooper allowed him to make it globally via satellite.)

    PC! Free speech! What about their rights?

    Excuse me, but what are the Rutgers and Haverford students exercising? What are the NBA players and former Clippers sponsors exercising?

    Yes, their free speech.

    In a culture governed by the buck, it is as if free speech is only for people of privilege. In that environment, free speech really isn't free – say for skinny college students on an ivy-covered college campus. It's proprietary.

    Commencement is a personal rite. Why shouldn't students be concerned about the person getting the last word on their education?

    Yes, indeed, people like Rice, Birgeneau and Sterling should be able to speak. But in a society based on the discourse that Stephen Carter says has been compromised, those powerful should expect to hear protests when their names are summoned. If they don't, that means people weren't paying attention to what they did. If they don't hear protests, this isn't the Middle Ages; this is North Korea.

   We should have saluted, not hit with riot weapons, the Cal-Berkeley students who cared enough about funding their school to put their hides on the line. Too many of their peers are lost in a smart-phone haze of apathy and atrophy. The media that inform them do not inform. For too many, the values that matter are on the drive-thru menu.

    Rather than bemoan displays of long-missing campus outrage, let me be among the first to welcome it back.

    Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

Monday, May 12, 2014

Freedom to trivialize one's religion

   It's always odd to see how some whose allegiance to Christ is most explicit seem allergic to much of what Christ said. About materialism. About militarism. About inclusiveness. About forgiveness.

  Then there's Christ's comment about public piety – about those who "pray that they be seen by men."

    He called them hypocrites.

    It would have been interesting to see how Jesus would vote if he were sitting among the black robes of the U.S. Supreme Court on the subject of public prayer for elected bodies. A one-vote majority ruled it a lawful prerogative.

  Let us acknowledge that, yes, nothing in the Constitution forbids hypocrisy.

   It's just too bad that people who truly believe in the power of prayer don't stand up and say:

   "Yes, government-sponsored prayer violates the First Amendment. More onerously, when reduced to a grandstand play, something sacred is rendered superficial."

   If one read the court's ruling, one would understand that the court authorized trivialized prayer, not the kind that can get personal.

   In the words of Justice Kennedy, lawful prayer does not "proselytize." In other words, what's legal is pasteurized prayer, not pastor-ized prayer. What's permissible is sanitized prayer, plasticized prayer.

   "To many religious people, God is not dependent on Congress or the Supreme Court," said former Sen. John Danforth during one of too many debates about school prayer, which he passionately opposed.

    "Advocates of school prayer seem to say that all prayer is good, regardless of its contents, that all prayer is equally efficacious, that the fact of prayer is important, not the content."

    Those thirsting for state-sponsored prayer would have dismissed Danforth and his fellow Democrats as anti-God. There would have been problems with that: First, Danforth is a Republican. Second, he is an ordained Episcopal priest.

   In many years covering issues and events in Texas, I often had cause to ruminate on the Southern Baptist Convention, and Baptists in general. I came to appreciate the intellectual independence built into the Baptist compact, the rebel notion of the "priesthood of the believer."

   Today's SBC? It will have none of that. It consistently models creedal conformity. Oh, and government entanglement in religion through things like school prayer? As with other noisy players in the religious right, the SBC is all in.

   The latter stance blatantly contradicts the impulses that spawned the Baptist denomination in the first place. Early Baptists were among the most zealous about keeping church and state separate.

   I think they had a good idea. So did the founding fathers, no matter how often proponents of state religion try to portray the founders in their likeness.

   A prohibition on state religion is not anti-religion. It is just the opposite. It is the most unifying thing written into our Constitution. It means that, unlike the lands from which the ancestors fled, religion will be honored as an individual matter. The state won't play favorites.

   Now listen to the two chief Republican rivals for the uber-powerful position of lieutenant governor in Texas. Both incumbent David Dewhurst and Sen. Dan Patrick said children in public schools should be taught the Christian view of creation alongside evolution theory.

   As Patrick says, "I think we really confuse our kids and our grandchildren because we send them to Sunday school; they learn about Jesus, they learn about the creation of the world, and then they go to school and they're denied the opportunity to hear that."

  This is a revelation (lower-case "R"): All children in Texas attend Sunday school.

   And so Patrick is right. The children of Texas Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Unitarians, agnostics and atheists are confused.

   Patrick's words are odious, yes, but let us say that were his wishes to bear fruit, non-Christians would be relieved to know that their own faith wouldn't be trivialized for display purposes.

   Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:


Tuesday, May 6, 2014

You're 13; so decide already

    CBS's unsung "Trophy Wife" is one of few sitcoms true to its "com." In part, this is because it allows the children in its cast to be childish.
   In one episode, gangly teen Warren, prodded to try out for a sport, announces he's achieved "Jackie Robinson" status by joining the girls' field hockey team.
   After a single practice he pronounces, "I've found the thing I want to do with the rest of my life."
   In Texas, I guess they would say, "Well, thanks for choosing your career path."
   Actually, however, Warren would be choosing too late. Texas wants students making career decisions by eighth grade. Warren is in high school, for goodness sakes: way after life's alternatives are exhausted.
   A new policy, part of Texas HB 5, requires eighth-graders, by the end of this school year, to choose one of five tracks for study — STEM (science, technology, engineering, math); business and industry; public service; arts and humanities; and something called multidisciplinary studies.
   Before expressing reservations, let me say that a few reforms in HB 5 were good. Principally, it reduced the number of standardized tests Texas is giving.
   Now for those reservations.
   A long time ago I resolved never to forget what it's like to be a teenager. Since that vow was made, raising two teens meant I'd need no reminding.
  Having post-adolescents declare fidelity to any pursuit that has more than a Gummi Worm's shelf life is, well. . . look up "dubious."
    We know a lifetime commitment is not Texas' intent — but tell that to a 13-year-old.
    The New York Times reports that quite a few Texas eighth-graders have been stressing out about this decision.
    This carries the brand of the unnecessary duress depicted in the documentary Race to Nowhere, about the ravages of high-stakes mandates and tests, tests, tests. One of its sad stories is of a 13-year-old who committed suicide after failing an algebra test.
    This declare-by-eighth-grade matter reminds me of a friend whose occupation took him to Japan, but whose heart remained in the American public school system that helped make him what he is.
    He was alarmed by the regimentation of Japanese schools, with students tracked into careers and tiers. When he and his Japanese wife had a son, they resolved to have him receive an American — or at least a Western — education. They helped start an international school, heavy on creativity, inspiration, individuality, and everything that industry-driven Japanese schools were not.
   On one hand, I can imagine that Texas' new initiative might have benefits in breaking the long-time fixation on one-size-fits-all approaches, heavy on core requirements.
   On the other, I see it as extending one of the most debilitating aspects of "accountability" — the quest to reduce education to training.
   This, of course, is driven by and modeled after the influence which drives every impulse in most state capitols — big business.
    There should be room in a K-12 education for training — the machine shop experience, the auto mechanics experience, the computer graphics experience.
    Then again, one of the worst things that has happened under "accountability" has been for policy makers to so fixate on and mandate requirements as to deprive high schoolers of the electives that so spice the high school experience.
    Repeat after me: Training is for employers and employees. Education is much more.
    For one, parents should worry about whether students who choose STEM will be shorted on discussions about citizenship, and whether those who choose arts and humanities will be shorted on science.
   Pardon me for observing that this approach sounds like taking the short-cut to the assembly line. Bring your lunch bucket.
    I vote for taking the long way, the way that truly educates. Then, when our Warren makes choices, they will be the kind that last.
     Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: