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26.11.09

Thanksgiving Day, 2009

This column publishes usually every Sunday through Thursday after noon (sometimes even before; maybe even after sundown on busy days) U.S. Central Time except whenever a significant national holiday falls on the Monday through Friday associated with the otherwise-usual publication on the previous day (unless it is Independence Day or Christmas or New Year's when it is the day on which the holiday is observed by the U.S. government). In my opinion, there are six of these: New Year's Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Veterans' Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas.

With Thursday, Nov. 26 being Thanksgiving Day, I invite you to explore the link above.

25.11.09

Liberal protest misdiagnosis sign of their own weakness

Selective outrage never is becoming, but it becomes more obnoxious still when it becomes selective selective outrage. An unsigned commentary from New Orleans’ Gambit magazine illustrates the point precisely.

The Gambit folks apparently became perturbed when, locally, in the wake of Republican Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao’s vote to pass a ruinously bad House health care measure received some rude remarks from people disappointed in that, and, nationally, that at a rally attended by 10,000 or so to protest the bill in Washington D.C. headlined by leading Republicans, a sign appeared equating a photo of a concentration camp with the bill. To them, it seemed to signify a recent growing incivility in political discourse.

But, in reality, the piece tells us more about the fallaciousness and insecurities of its writers. The entire diatribe focused on this presumed speech coming from alleged supporters of the Republican Party and by implication from the right of the ideological spectrum. And to bolster its attempt to define this speech into its being uncivil, the writers mention that two groups called upon Republican leaders to condemn it as such. Recognize this tactic serves a broader political agenda to accomplish the proverbial passing of a camel through the eye of a needle, to try to delegitimize principled conservatism by a shotgun marriage of it with these other sentiments by the drawing of condemnation of groups allegedly representing the objects of these slurs.

This attempt unravels when first investigating the groups. One, the Anti-Defamation League, famously preaches from the left and long has a history of selective outrage: speech from the right it finds offensive draws immediate ire; but unquestionably hateful speech from places with which left sympathizes draws mild rebukes if any at all. The other, the Asian Pacific Americans for Progress, describes itself as an organization for “progressive” (read: very liberal) people and swears absolutely fealty to the health care reform wreck supported by Democrats. That they are the ones condemning remarks isn’t so much any validation that these remarks are objectionable as it is revelation of their own partisan political biases. Naturally, the editorial mentions none of this.

Note also that the writers are building a thesis by selectively taking unrepresentative evidence and attempting to impute it to the whole. Maybe, out of the thousand or more signs at the rally, were there a couple others of the same ilk that got the writers into a huff. And the submitted comments about Cao that so vexed these crusaders are unlikely to represent more than a similar proportion of the entire universe of those objecting to Cao’s vote. Yet they try to pass off these as some larger indicator of widespread “hatred” that has created this “ugly season.”

This cavalier reading makes one wonder where these nimrods have been for the past decade. If you want to see real vituperative hate in political discourse, you need look no further than dozens of wacko leftist blogger and forum sites where the venom has been flowing freely ever since former Pres. Bill Clinton got caught with his fly unzipped. This should not be surprising, as liberalism as a whole lacks intellectual and empirical verification as a political ideology, so it must rely on willful ignorance of history and fact with these replaced by emotive anti-intellectual appeal. Yet this seems to escape the slumbering authors, perhaps because they revel in the same self-deception and/or inability to think for themselves.

Being an ideology bereft any intellectual coherence and substance, liberalism’s proponents long ago took and made mainstream arguments into directions featuring ad hominem, straw man, and dissembling qualities. Not unlike what Gambit’s editorialists try to do when they imply negative qualities to the right when it has been the left’s province for so long. Liberals have for so long have created the conditions and lived in an “ugly season” that when seeing a flicker of it on the right they cannot break from the playbook which results in the usual incorrect, self-serving interpretation.

24.11.09

Reform, reorganization best ways to gain large savings

In what promises to be a slow news week, the Baton Rouge Advocate ran a story about something in state government that was not anything new, but nevertheless interesting and worthwhile in the complicated public policy debate about force levels and classification of state government workers.

Those perusing the latest available (2007-08) annual report of the Department of State Civil Service will have noted that force levels overall did not change too much in the fiscal year 2004-2008 periods, but that a decrease of around 5,000 in the classified ranks was offset by a more than 5,000 increase in the unclassified service. Classified employees, after a six month probationary period, acquire job protections that vastly constrain agency abilities to discipline or to make workforce adjustments that would result in lower salaries for them, and which make it very difficult in an extended process to discharge them.

However, the article focuses on the unclassified workforce – those whose personnel matters are outside the hiring, disciplining, and firing regulations of the DSCS and are left up to the agencies that employ them. It notes this increase in the unclassified service and ponders about its implications. Unfortunately, the piece does not adequately capture the complexity of this argument, a necessary prerequisite as Louisiana looks to reduce its personnel costs by making its government more efficient as large budget deficits loom.

Regrettably, the article leaves the impression that the vast majority of the roughly one-third of the state’s full-time equivalent workforce in the unclassified service are presumed less “controllable” as objects of state spending policy and are at-will, if not political, appointees. However, it is decidedly not the case that more than a fraction of the unclassified service is comprised of positions whose existences, compensations, and hiring and firing positions are left mainly in the hands of elected officials and/or policy-makers.

Most of the unclassified service has performance pay plans in place – and often plans tying actual performance more closely to pay adjustments than presently in the classified service. For example, in higher education where the majority of these unclassified employees work, campuses years ago were directed to construct performance plans that assign numerical scores to various and mostly objective indicators, along with a few subjective ones, from which pay raises are calculated. In fact, campuses themselves determine whether raises are made and how, and with the fiscal situation such as it has been for the state for the past quarter-century these have been far and few between.

Contrast this with the procedure in the classified system, where the more-subjective evaluation process produces a five-tiered system where the same raise, until this year given annually, is given to anybody in the three higher tiers or well over 95 percent of the classified force. This may change, as the State Civil Service Commission in a couple of weeks will decide whether to change the present classified evaluation system to one that is actually closer to that often used in evaluating members of the unclassified service.

Also, in the instances of anyone who entered or laterally moved into the higher education system in a tenure-track position, these take on characteristics of the classified service. After, in essence, a much longer probationary period (usually six years; some actually come in with tenure and thus have no probationary period), they acquire protections similar to those in the classified service.

Finally, the reason why the proportion of about a third of the state’s employees are unclassified is because of two quirks tolerated in Louisiana, a higher education system that could use some more rationalization in organization and a charity hospital system run by a higher education system. The state’s head count (as opposed to FTE) number for the end of fiscal year 2009 shows almost half of the state’s employees are in higher education. (Some of this is overstated because, for example, part of that count will be students on work-study, adjunct instructors teaching a single course, etc.). But, given the large number of campuses (90) and five boards that oversee postsecondary education that may not do a lot to prevent inefficiency, ongoing cost-cutting deliberations may produce some retrenchment in almost all unclassified positions from this area.

Note as well that because higher education (the Louisiana State University System, specifically) has authority over the charity hospital system, the vast bulk of its employees are categorized here and are unclassified. Were the state do the sensible thing and get out of the hospital business except for a facility or two used for medical training (if even any are necessary), these jobs, most unclassified, would disappear from state rolls.

And if DSCS did look into the data to explain the changes in both areas of employment, it probably would find most of the downsizing in classified employee numbers has come from the aftereffects of the 2005 hurricane disasters, and subsequent reductions stressed by the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration, partly out of budgetary concerns and partly out of ideology, and by other officials with power in this area (most notably Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain), while the increase in unclassified employee tallies has come from the large amount of money pumped into higher education for several years until last year and unabated escalation of Medicaid costs and usage that have pumped up demand in the charity hospital system. It’s likely not as mysterious a development as DSCS officials seem to think.

Thus, the perception that the proportion is recklessly growing of the Louisiana state government workforce created and supervised at the whim of officials, and the allied thought that cost-cutting measures here would reap significant rewards, is unwarranted. Many more savings will emerge through mundane technocratic kinds of reorganization and reform of the present classified pay regime than by a scrubbing of unclassified positions where people are hired and fired at will.

23.11.09

Wise higher ed suggestions need serious consideration

Sensible ideas continue to come from Louisiana’s Postsecondary Education Review Commission regarding realigning resources, but especially in this policy area real progressive change only will occur with proper implementation.

The latest recommendations, joining others some of which can be implemented by the state’ Board of Regents but most of which only can be dealt with by the Legislature, would result in the discontinuation of some academic programs, perhaps especially in graduate studies, with an emphasis on completion rates, quality, and workforce needs to sort those that continue from those that shouldn’t. In addition, it recommended equal funding per faculty member for associates degree programs (those offered at baccalaureate universities typically are higher because of higher faculty salaries) and the elimination of “excess” hours in programs (currently defined as any baccalaureate program offering more than 120 hours except where accreditation requires more).

These recommendations remain consistent with previous ones suggested if not adopted. For example, PERC has asked for higher admission standards and consolidation of schools in some instances. That was brought up again particularly in reference to Southern University – New Orleans which has averaged about 10 percent completers (finishing a degree in six years) over the past couple of years. Adding the reduction of programs could strip a school like SUNO to the point where it has no real reason to exist as a separate institution.

This may be the only way to move the state towards consolidations and even closure or downgrading of campuses from four-year to two-year, as politics has played a major role in keeping this from happening. While the Southern University System may complain that the ravages of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 have had lingering effects on its ability to deliver education, that calamity’s intervention made for the ideal opportunity to put consolidation into effect. With the University of New Orleans also hurting from that disaster (as one of its coping moves, looking to downgrade significantly its athletics programs despite their history of reasonable success), it would have made perfect sense long ago to combine forces by folding the small SUNO into the larger UNO and divest of the SUNO infrastructure.

However, as a commission member pointed out, the state cannot arbitrarily lop off any low completer program or consolidate it elsewhere. One example from my past: years ago, Louisiana State University Shreveport offered a Bachelors of Arts in Social Sciences – Public Administration. From anywhere from five to 10 students were enrolled in it at any time. It was certainly needed – there are thousands of government employees (not counting teachers and university professors) in the Shreveport metropolitan area in managerial positions – but it received little support in terms of connecting it to government (although at the time LSUS spent almost nothing on these kinds of efforts, so it wasn’t being discriminated against). But it cost nothing to have. Its major coursework was taught by faculty members whose courses were used in other majors as well, and the only extra and modest administrative demands it made were added to the duties of one faculty member (me).

Eventually, it was discontinued as part of a round a dozen years ago ridding low completer programs. However, not a single cent was saved by doing so, and under different circumstances it would have had great potential. It is considerations such as these that will have to be weighed by any round (yet again) of low completer removals.

One option not present in the past, also suggested by a commission member, is the use of online delivery as a method of consolidation. For example, Illinois has a quasi-separate administrative unit within the University of Illinois system called the Illinois Virtual Campus which essentially allows any student at any state public university to take a course online offered at any state public university and have it count as potentially fulfilling a degree requirement at their home school. This model could be adapted to Louisiana where instruction of duplicative specialty programs could housed in one institution administratively and then delivered through distance means.

Further, increased use of online instructional resources can create specialization and efficiency. As an example, it is now possible at LSUS to fulfill all major area requirements for a B.A. in Social Sciences – Political Science through online coursework, and the same holds true for a Bachelors of General Studies, except for the capstone course, if the area of concentration chosen is in political science. This presently can attract students who complete associates degrees at community colleges across the state, who then virtually without leaving their areas can transfer and complete a four-year degree.

Yet this can be expanded in the context of realigning resources. As an example, smaller schools who either do not offer political science beyond the introductory level or general studies as a major could import LSUS political science courses, or those schools if they have these majors if low completer in nature could shed them from being taught on their campuses yet their students still could complete those degrees with use of the imported courses. Obviously this would create controversy because it could mean certain faculty members in certain disciplines at certain schools would be made redundant, but if the state is serious about efficiency, it’s going to be headed in that direction. (And the transformation would take some time – if tenured, faculty members essentially would have to leave their jobs before such realignment could happen in a cost effective way.)

To date, even as PERC is asked to come up with $146 million in savings prior to the end of February, most of the real savings are long-term in nature such as with the above. Regardless of these not being short-term items, ideas such as these promise substantial savings through more efficient alignment of resources, and PERC wisely needs to keep heading and recommending in this direction. Then it will be up to the Regents and Legislature to put aside politics to adopt them and into implement them with care.