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1.10.09

... as entitlement attitude leads to job security fixation

As entrenched higher education interests ineffectively tried to turn a commission against needed reform, not too far away state employees, many who appear to want to cut their noses off despite their faces, gave another commission an earful about what it’s like to think you can have a taxpayer-funded job for life despite the actual needs of the state.

In Alexandria at a meeting of the Commission on Streamlining Government, civil servants, many in the area of health care and egged on by unions representing some of them, sounded off on plans to privatize some state functions. Among the epithetical phrases used was “streamlining is another term for downsizing,” and a union thug threatened the elected officials on the panel against those who desired reelection if state workers had to try to fight off attempts to eliminate jobs. One non-state worker who recently became unemployed complained he couldn’t find work and thus that would be the fate of laid-off state employees which would then cost the state in term of welfare benefits to be paid out.

The ignorance, vapidity, and lack of critical thinking behind these remarks appear overwhelming, but let’s take them in small doses. Initially, it must be noted that many of those present work in areas of government most vulnerable to the environment that spurred creation of the body, a looming budgetary crisis that could put the state in a hole as large as $2 billion or perhaps a fifth of its entire general fund. Unless savings are found across government such as by privatization of functions in many areas, the largest absolute hit would come in health care meaning lots of job losses. In other words, the choice may mean either managed cuts through things like privatization or indiscriminate cuts that probably would cause the loss of even more state jobs.

And if “streamlining” turns into “downsizing,” so what? What’s so sacred about state government performing all the things it has been doing using only state employees? If necessary service is equivalent or better and costs the same or less, the citizen and especially taxpayer is better off by shedding state jobs. Nobody has a right to keep doing the same job if the state saves money and/or gets better results by outsourcing it.

If so, the result will be temporary unemployment. But there are other jobs out there, and even if this negative economic climate over 90 percent of those who want to find work succeed in gaining employment. It may not be with government, it may not be as good or as well-paying … but then again, it might be better and higher-paying. Chances are if you can’t get a job it’s primarily because you don’t bring that much skill and desire to the marketplace in the first place. And even if the state then has to pay benefits for that portion that couldn’t get a job, those expenses probably would not be more than the savings from layoffs.

Actually, these whining government workers express so much dismay at the prospect of layoffs because they know they have it good. Insulated from market pressures where, in this state, you have to be noticeably deficient not to get a satisfactory or better rating and therefore (until this year) a nice annual raise (about one percent of them) and grossly incompetent to get discharged (averaging around 300 a year), so you can float along without a great deal of pressure to perform, with little incentive to do more than the minimum, and you can stay as long as the job is there if you get mostly satisfactory or better ratings – at a wage scale that, particularly at the lowest levels, is as good or better than what the market would pay for similar described work. “Streamlining” threatens that sense of entitlement, and that to take away this property right they call a job is offensive to them.

Thus, the union thug’s pronouncement expressed perfectly the attitude shared by these workers (which is by no means reflective of the attitude held by all state workers), that their needs are more important those of the people who hired them, Louisiana’s citizens. They proclaim it is more important that the state spend money inefficiently in order to transfer more of it to them than it is to serve the taxpayer by being a good steward of the people’s resources. Anybody who stands in their way in keeping the established order they try to bully with electoral threatened consequences.

Fortunately, the electorate is many more than this group of sheltered crybabies, and hopefully the Commission will have the fortitude to see past their antics and recommend what is necessary to improve government delivery of needed services with reduced costs, no matter what that might be. Political courage by policy-makers to follow would complete the successful reform, and the state as a whole will be winner even if it inconveniences a few spoiled people here and there.

30.9.09

Protecting current system continues inefficiencies ...

About a hundred miles apart, two distinct audiences, one representing well-educated, well-paid, and high-status state employees, and another composed primarily of working- and middle-class civil servants whined similar tunes of privilege and entitlement funded by taxpayers as Louisiana looks to avert a spectacular budget crisis.

Earlier, in Baton Rouge, the Postsecondary Education Review Commission heard from the Louisiana State University system, my employer who definitely does not speak for me on this issue and vice-versa. It was in response to previous testimony that suggested some kind of restructuring or change of priorities, which could lead to lower enrollments at baccalaureate-and-above degree granting institutions, instead of shoveling more money at education was needed in light of looming, massive cuts to higher education as a result of budgetary shortfalls. The response by the system was, well, to shovel more money into education.

The LSU system seemed most perturbed at the eminently sensible idea of raising admission standards across the board for these kinds of institutions. That would encourage some students to pursue community and technical college degrees which may be more appropriate for their abilities and desires. However, as far as the LSU system goes, this probably would reduce overall enrollment as only one campus (Eunice) is a junior college and while the New Orleans, Shreveport, and Alexandria campuses might pick up students now denied entry into the Baton Rouge campus (which presumably would have the highest standards), that one would lose potentially many students.

Thus, an LSU system representative berated the idea of increasing standards, saying “Let me tell you what raising admissions standards does — all it does is mask the performance of the campus.” This is an egregiously stupid statement on three levels. First, if raising standards, as was done a few years ago (to levels which are, frankly, minimal), caused, as he asserted, barely any improvement in grade point averages (implying that they hadn’t being dragged down by weak students), this is in part because some of the weakest washed out in ways not detectable by GPA as a measurement; for example, students dropping classes in which they were doing poorly (usually permissible well into the term) and never receiving a bad grade.

Second, GPA often does not serve as a good proxy for quality of students in the aggregate at an institution because (this being a dirty secret of academia that I’m sure at some unknown point in the future in some unpredictable way I will be penalized for revealing) the majority of college faculty members teach to their perceived level of their students, rather than setting an ambitious bar and working to help students raise themselves up to that level. Thus, the response to raising admission standards often is to become more demanding as an instructor (because it’s now easier, whereas being demanding with lower-quality students takes more work), when the two should be independent. (Which by itself does not guarantee quality, either – at some institutions, standards are set too low producing grade inflation.)

(As an anecdote, a former dean of my college, who mercifully and blessedly was put out to pasture some years ago, actually told me – in writing – that he was going to punish me related to my instructional level being too demanding, and that I had to teach down to the level of students covered by the admission standards which I said I would refuse to do. Shockingly, his is not an uncommon attitude in academia.)

Third, the remark tried to shift blame onto the concept – raising admission standards – instead of the genuine locus, the institutions themselves. It’s not the imposition of higher standards that has no effect, it’s that the faculty, aided if not encouraged by the institutions, are subverting the effect by manipulating an imperfect measure of that effect, average GPA. As a result, commission members panned severely the remark, one calling it “very offensive.”

Another comment echoed the inanity expressed by the system head in a nongovernmental setting last week, that the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students should be converted from a scholarship program to a need-based benefit. This would allow financial sleight-of-hand where the system could argue to keep the reduced amount of TOPS money in higher education and then reap extra funds by collecting tuition from families discriminated against only because of finances – which may lead better students to forgo Louisiana public higher education.

Recognize that these kinds of statements are not made because they will improve higher education in the state, but because they serve the entrenched interests in it that benefit from the current ways of doing things, and also to try to shift the blame elsewhere, specifically claiming the educational establishment in the state, from kindergarten through graduate schooling, isn’t responsible but politicians are because they don’t give it enough money. That’s not going to wash, especially given that, in per capita terms, Louisiana has way too many institutions and spends way too much for the performance delivered.

Again, signs are that the commission will ignore these bleats of turf and job protection and hopefully will recommend measures that will make higher education in the state more efficient, if not better. And then later that day, another commission heard much the same kind of tripe … but that analysis can wait until tomorrow.

29.9.09

Non-decisions shaping N.O. mayor, House contests

In the past week or so, a couple of burning questions have been answered concerning the electoral future of New Orleans, both on the same subject: when will heavy hitters finally begin to signal intentions about the upcoming important political contests?

The answer relative to the Second Congressional District seat came when it was declined to be given relative to the New Orleans mayor’s contest, upon state Rep. Karen Peterson’s declaration she was not a candidate for the latter. Now the Speaker pro-tempore in the House, the daughter of a prominent political family has been sending her profile progressively higher in the Legislature as becoming perhaps the most high-profile legislative opponent of Gov. Bobby Jindal, and would have been a formidable candidate.

But the reason for her passing no doubt signals great interest in the congressional spot. She ran in 2006 and pushed the disgraced former Rep. William Jefferson into a competitive runoff under the old blanket primary system. That she did not try again in 2008 should not be taken as a indicator of lost interest in the job; she was coming off a reelection campaign to the House and she probably figured that the dynamics of Jefferson’s indictment with his insistence on running again meant he would win and be forced to resign, creating a better opportunity to run later. His upset by Republican Anh “Joseph” Cao did not change calculations much given the heavy Democrat registration in the district.

She would be the third House member to throw her hat into the ring, joining Cedric Richmond and Juan LaFonta, and favored over them. Besides being more experienced than these guys who also from time to time have been vocal critics of the new day in Louisiana, she simply comes across better and more credibly. Typically, when LaFonta or Richmond launch a critique of Jindal or conservative policy, it’s almost instantly detectable as absurd, but when Peterson does it, she does so in a way that actually makes one think about it for a second or two before her remarks’ idiocy becomes apparent, an exercise in agile thinking that many potential voters cannot master.

However, the mayor’s contest appears to have garnered another strong candidate in businessman John Georges, who has all but announced his intent to run even as a number of other high profile elected officials have publicly stated denials. Georges ran for governor in 2007, finishing third in a largely self-financed campaign but won in Orleans Parish, and has plenty of money to burn in an attempt that may not even cost as much.

Presently, only activist James Perry, state Sen. Edwin Murray, and state Rep. Austin Badon have declared candidacies, and in a sense the dynamic favors Georges. Going straight from state office to the mayor’s office without a local seasoning in office has proven impossible in recent years for successful mayoral candidates, the last making such a transition being DeLesseps “Chep” Morrison six decades ago. As a political outsider, Georges also would have been disadvantaged in this regard – until current Mayor Ray Nagin broke the mold promising a fresh businessman orientation in 2002.

Given the disappointment of Nagin’s reign and continuing distrust of elected officials, Georges has the potential to ride far his credentials as a formidable creator of jobs and not being a typical politician. Yet the experiencing of Nagin, the fact that some look negatively on Georges’ long association with gambling in his business, and the inescapable fact of his pale skin in a black-majority city may make a Georges’ campaign merely formidable but not victorious. Georges also did not exactly show a gift for connecting with voters in his gubernatorial run, and that will be even harder to do given this constituency on the whole will be even more socioeconomically impaired.

Georges’ candidacy, if he declares, may take all the room out for the likes of radio talk show host and 2006 candidate Rob Couhig and former city councilman Eddie Sapir among whites. Peterson’s entrance into the House race, if it happens, may do the same for any other black candidate interested in the Democrat nomination; with Cao almost certain to run for reelection, he is unlikely to be challenged in the Republican primary and her move in this direction almost certainly would close that contest off. But if no other prominent black politician enters the mayor’s race, Georges might have a chance. His deep pockets could scare off even competitive black Democrats from running, the only way he’ll have a chance. Therefore, if he’s going to do it, a declaration by him sooner rather than later will help his chances of winning.

28.9.09

LA bribery strategy creating too many low paying jobs

Although it has brought many positive changes to Louisiana, the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration always has carried a strange blind spot on the issue of economic development. Comments made to the Postsecondary Education Review Commission (finally) meeting only reinforces the eccentricity under Jindal’s watch.

There, Curt Eysink, executive director of the Louisiana Workforce Commission, testified that, in a sense, the state was producing too many baccalaureate college graduates because there weren’t enough jobs for them, while there didn’t seem to be enough graduates with associate degrees given the forecasted areas of jobs growth. This proved to be too much of a softball for the committee composed of many in the higher education industry with advanced degrees, which blithely informed him that if Louisiana economic development as such that those kinds of jobs were the ones being produced, it’s no wonder the current brain drain was occurring and it was a problem of economic development, not educational resource allocation.

This commission is to deal with higher education, but the larger question of economic development is related and perhaps more important. One commission member told of a homegrown Louisiana firm that felt it had to open a new office in North Carolina, full of high-paying jobs, because the state was graduating too few indigenous engineers. Recently, statistics came out showing that while the state’s population wasn’t changing too much, there was a significant net outflow of college-educated individuals and a net inflow of those without such degrees.

So, to solve for this, to create more higher-paying jobs that require baccalaureate and above kinds of education, you would think economic development policy in the state would focus on creating the conditions for business formation and attraction, such as lowering taxes, slashing regulation, and ensuring political interference is minimized, along with improvements in educational quality starting from kindergarten on up. And to some lesser degree these have taken place under Jindal.

But working at exact cross-purposes has been the bribery strategy started under previous governors which Jindal quizzically has expanded, where all sorts of monetary incentives are dangled to companies to locate operations in the state, to mask the warts of the more cumbersome business climate, tax structure, regulatory regime, and of subpar educational capacity. And guess which kinds of jobs largely are getting attracted when taxpayer money is dangled at them? Not the high tech, engineering, and the like, but plucking chickens and making car components that don’t even require a high school education, and not even often a degree from a technical school.

Which leads to the somewhat convoluted thinking that Jindal operatives seem to have on the state of postsecondary education. They have opined that the state needs more two-year degree graduates, but why isn’t this being done already? After all, when throwing together all of the technical and community colleges in the state together, Louisiana has the sixth most of any state (plus the District of Columbia) in the nation and in per capita terms is ranked third in number of higher education institutions per resident. Yet in terms of enrollment per institution, the state ranks 47th. The infrastructure is there and in fact may be part of the problem – too many such institutions diluting resources that make it more difficult to produce graduates while concentrating too much on enrollments.

In essence, it almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Economic development strategy disproportionately brings in jobs more associated with technical and associates’ degrees, producing the complaint that there aren’t enough students graduating with these. Meanwhile, some of those with baccalaureate degrees can’t find enough work and leave the state, decreasing the chances of the creation of more such jobs and reinforcing the trend and justification for the bribery economic development strategy that brings in disproportionately lower quality jobs.

In the short term, the bribery strategy and the growth strategy of cutting taxes, etc. both cost the state – the former in taxpayer dollars going out in subsidies, the latter in forgone revenues coming in – but the long term ends are starkly different. The bribery strategy perpetuates overweighing in less productive/valuable enterprises, while the growth strategy sets the stage for disproportionately higher-productivity/value employment abounding. However, results for the latter take longer than those of the former to show up.

Perhaps that is why Jindal has been suckered into so much emphasis on the bribery strategy, because it can produce (disproportionately inferior) jobs more quickly, while with the growth strategy it may take considerably longer for the higher-quality jobs to surface although they will bring with them a number of, perhaps in absolute terms even greater amounts of them than with the bribery strategy, the lower-paying jobs as well. Even a decade can be a political lifetime, so expediency may encourage chasing job growth which manifests in a couple of years rather than which takes longer.

If this is what is driving the puzzling Jindal fixation on dangling incentives, he needs to get out from under the spell of those selling him this pap and understand that best addressing the long term economic interests of the state involves moving away from the legal bribery of business by government. And that means that baccalaureate holders graduated in-state are not, in policy terms, seen as something to be dealt with, but instead integrated as a resource into a strategy to produce superior jobs and economic growth.

27.9.09

Union drivel continues opposing successful policy

It’s almost unfair, you might think, at the number of times he leaves himself defenseless, and just how many reminders does he need to give us why public elementary and secondary education is so poor in Louisiana? Yet, he’s done it again.

The walking gaffe machine known as Steve Monaghan, the president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, opened wide and stuck his foot in his mouth yet again. It came in response to recommendations made by a staff member of the National Governors’ Association who has expertise in the area of education policy, both from the practitioner and research side. The NGA, one might think, would have a pretty good handle on various policy initiatives in the states in regards to education, and what seems to work.

Her mistake was to have the temerity to suggest that teachers who perform better actually get paid more than those who don’t, which runs contrary to Louisiana’s system, heavily backed by unions, of paying more for having credentials and longevity than by any demonstration of merit. This got Monaghan’s attention, which leads one to wonder whether he understands how ridiculous he appears to anyone who understands the real world and/or who studies the data.

To the suggestion that the top half of the state’s teachers could earn bonuses of $3,000 to $6,000 through a 10 percent cut in the money that now goes to their colleagues for longevity in the classroom, Monaghan stated, “Those mistakes have already been made elsewhere. We strongly oppose any plan that would reduce the pay earned by any teacher. Anyone who believes we can improve compensation or education without the investment of additional revenues is sadly mistaken.”

Then how is it that there are a number of states where teacher pay, adjusted for cost of living (and even some not), is lower than the average in Louisiana yet their students do far better in achievement? That studies show teacher pay plans along the suggested lines do work, and that increasing teacher pay in general pales in consideration to other factors in the improvement of student achievement. Or that an enormous sum of money continues to be pumped into education in the state yet test scores remain well below the nation’s average? Further, the argument is not to reduce “pay earned by any teacher,” but to stop giving out future increases just because a teacher manages not to get fired year after year.

In this written statement concerning the consultant’s recommendations, Monaghan also said, “We will never tell teachers who have invested time, money and effort in earning advanced degrees that they labored in vain,” to the idea that pay should be linked to performance, not credentialing. To argue the recommendation entails this creates a straw man: the entire idea behind getting additional credentials is that they will make the person a better teacher, which then should translate into better performance that would garner extra compensation, according to the recommendation. The change merely would not grant automatic hikes for credentials only lacking any proof that they have improved performance, as is the current system.

Again, such resistance to changing the established order, where Louisiana schools continue to underperform relative to their peers, and such a fixation on transfer of taxpayer dollars to teachers without any evidence that they do what is intended reaffirms that unions care nothing about the taxpayer, the schools, or the students. Attitudes like these, filtered down to many teachers (although others resist that mentality and are doing their best to overcome this cancer to education), along with the incumbent inability to critically think as shown, explain why so much educational underachievement happens in Louisiana public schools.

The consultant appeared in front of a panel that is to recommend policy measures for education. Hopefully, the commission will reject the thinking of self-interested organizations that are dinosaurs and propose measures such as this that will move the present public education system more towards educating students and away from enriching special interests.