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January 8, 2004, 8:50 A.M.

Governor Benson just handed out laptops to children in schools around the state. He also handed out a letter asking the parents of those kids to support the business that donated the laptops. A cynic would point out that many of those businesses also gave a lot of money to Benson’s campaign. I don’t think the letter is a bad idea, as long as local support from businesses, parent groups, booster organizations and individuals in the community are also acknowledged, because that is where the real support for schools comes from. A pile of computers does nothing without the support of the school and the community to ensure that they are used to advance teaching and to support curriculum, otherwise they are just toys. Incidentally, were the companies Benson wants those parents to support New Hampshire companies or were they located out of state, like Benson’s own company, Massachusetts-based Enterasys?

January 8, 2004, 8:45 A.M.

The Wal Mart Syndrome: There was a great discussion on the Diane Rehm Show on NPR yesterday regarding Wal Mart. A panel of experts discussed what they called the “Wal Mart phenomenon;” I call it Wal Mart Syndrome.

Just 8 or 9 years ago, Wal Mart professed to be a great “American” company. Today, Wal Mart imports billions of dollars of low-priced goods from China. What the company doesn’t like to mention is the billions of dollars more worth of goods manufactured in China it buys from other companies: Huffy bicycles, for example. Wal Mart doesn’t count these purchases when it reports the details of its international sales. Wal Mart is also known for telling its suppliers that if they can’t provide products at a favorable price, they will have knock off products made in China, cheaper. 10% of all Chinese exports are sold through Wal Mart stores; and these goods account for perhaps 20% of Wal Mart’s total sales. Wal Mart expects this number to rise in the future.

This company is successful not only because of its use of cheap international labor. There are some very innovative marketing and distribution techniques that also give the company an edge, but manufacturing, or purchasing goods manufactured, in countries without child labor laws, fair labor standards, environmental constraints or intellectual property constraints affords a huge competitive edge. Add to this the allegations of sex discrimination and unfair labor practices here in the U.S. and you have a company that clearly has become the world’s largest retailer through the development of effective management and marketing systems, but also without regard to the cost to people working to manufacture and supply goods to its stores.

Three million manufacturing jobs have left this country in the last three years and those jobs are not coming back. The “outsourcing” of manufacturing to countries where labor standards and relaxed or non-existent, where no environmental standards exist and where the work force is exploited purely for profit and greed, undercuts, circumvents and endangers protections for workers and the environment in this country.

Despite this phenomenon, Wal Mart customers keep coming. They shop at Wal Mart because they think it is cheaper, without regard to why, or the effects on their country’s economy and work force. In this sense, Wal Mart customers support the very behavior that is taking away their jobs. The shifting work force is simply another example of the results of corporate greed that I have mentioned in the context of IBM moving jobs overseas. But as long as Wal Mart continues to sell the cheapest Tickle-Me-Elmo, U.S. manufacturing and local retail, businesses will continue to close and give way to mega-corporations and the jobs previously provided in small local business will continue to melt down all the way to China. The Wal Mart syndrome.

January 4, 2004, 3:10 P.M.

The NCLB backlash has begun. Provisions of the law requiring schools to demonstrate “adequate yearly progress” are being challenged because of the failure of the law to provide flexibility in implementation. For instance, all demographic groups in each school within a district must meet rising goals for English and math proficiency. This provision is intended to ensure that poor and minority children benefit from the requirements of the law. While I wholeheartedly agree with the concept, the law falls flat in implementation. It fails to consider the influx of new non-English speaking students into a school district each year. The scoring requirements continue to rise, but the students entering school do so with the same baseline language skills.

According to teachers’ union statistics, 26,000 of the nation’s 93,000 school districts failed to meet AYP for some reason. Included on the list was Somers High School in Connecticut, where 100 percent of all students scored at or above the proficient level in reading and 99 percent in math. Since only 94.3 percent of the class took the test, instead of the 95 percent required by the law, the school was designated as failing.

This type of result, along with the high cost of implementation, is causing many school districts (including Somers) to reject federal funding in order to opt out of compliance with the law. As the requirements of the law continue to escalate, more districts will be opting out due to the overwhelming cost of compliance.

The City of Reading, Pennsylvania has sued the state of Pennsylvania over enforcement of the law and Utah legislators are calling the law an unfunded mandate. As more districts are added to the list of failing schools, more suits will follow.

There should be a way to ensure that all students are getting the best and the most out of public education, but this should be done in a way that does not impose an unfair burden on local districts and that does not recognize that all districts are not the same. Finally, if the federal government is going to insist on compliance with this law, they ought to back up that insistence with money, even if that simply means funding NCLB’s requirements under IDEA, the other great unfunded mandate.

January 4, 2004, 10:00 A.M.

I've decided that I’ve been screaming into the darkness about the decline of the middle class, the disparity between obscene wealth and poverty, and moral decline long enough. It’s primary season and it’s time to look at some candidates and their chances in the upcoming primaries.

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that an in depth analysis of the issues is in order; that’s not what primary politics is about. Primary politics is about voter appeal. It’s about who can win and why and for most voters, that is a personal decision, not an issue-driven one. I’m not saying that presidential candidates shouldn’t be elected based on their stand on the issues, I’m just saying that for the most party they are not.

For example, take President Bush. Please. If one were to consider whether or not to vote for President purely based on this record, Bush would be looking for a job. He has foisted an ill-conceived, flawed and meddlesome education law on this country in the name of education reform. Having tried, in vain in most cases, to comply with the law, some school districts across the country are beginning to resist its implementation. The Reading, Pennsylvania school district has sued the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania over implementation of the law, claiming that by enforcing the federal law, the state had “unfairly judged Reading’s efforts to educate thousands of recent immigrants and unreasonably required the impoverished city to offer tutoring and other services where there is no money.” Apparently, Reading is struggling with the one-size-fits-all performance requirements of No Child Left Behind.

It’s not only NCLB that should have Bush 43 out on his ear. His record of giving huge perks to the energy, drug and finance industries where corruption and greed are rampant is just another part of the story. If, however, these examples of Bush’s record are not enough, the lies, the complete and total fabrications of evidence regarding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and purported Iraqi ties to 9/11 should be enough to have the Rove administration (did I say Rove administration again?) packing its bags. I hope the next administration will look more closely at the no bid contracts given to the Vice President’s former company, Halliburton. Speaking of Halliburton, this company’s greed knows no bounds. They have been given exclusive contracts to feed, clothe and fuel U.S. troops in Iraq and they still have to price gouge us on the very oil we invaded Iraq to procure.

But Bush is firmly entrenched. Who is going to defeat him? A Republican friend (the other one) recently asked me which of the nine dwarfs I was supporting. It is truly time for this field to narrow down and New Hampshire should result in the first cut. Sharpton, Mosley-Braun and Kucinich will not survive to swing through the South. Their voices should not be lost, but they have no chance of impacting the election now, and they, as Democrats, need to get in line behind the candidates who can actually get elected.

So who are the candidates who can actually get elected? Without getting into the issues at this time, I see Lieberman, Gephardt, Clark and Dean as the first tier. Kerry and Edwards do not seem to be holding their own. I think that Edwards makes a lot of sense, but I don’t see big money backing a southern trial lawyer. Nothing to do with issues, because, based on his positions, Edwards should be a frontrunner. Until recently, I didn’t see Dean getting out of the Northeast alive. He has a strong, young, energetic base of support, but it may be quixotic to think that his arrogant, eastern style and persona will carry across the South. I don’t think he’ll play well with the traditional wing of the party. Of course, I could be wrong, and Al Gore could be right. Dean could be the Big Story of 2004, I just don’t see it at this point. If I’m wrong, it will be because of his momentum and because no other challenger knocks him off by exciting the currently loosely committed “Clinton Democrats.” Dean will get a bump from the loss of Sharpton, Mosley-Braun and Kucinich, but I don’t think that will help him in the South.

Clark is surprisingly resilient and is mounting a strong campaign. Lieberman is surging as his message gets out. Gephardt is quietly maintaining is traditional base, but he did take some serious hits on union and party (Gore) endorsements for Dean. Of these three, I like Gephardt best because he speaks to the working class, blue collar American that I see as this country’s strength. I just don’t know if there are enough of those people left who believe in the Democratic party as their savior. The party of Roosevelt no longer exists and Gephardt may be its last vestige.

History suggests that Dean should win the nomination because he is a former governor with a broad base of support and a lot of money. There are still many obstacles in his way, which is why I see the first cut leaving four candidates still standing. Dean’s fortunes may turn on where the others line up when the winnowing begins.

January 3, 2004, 10:20 A.M.

I have just returned from several days in Miami, Florida where I was on a sailing trip with my son. While he was sailing, I had time to look around a bit and what I saw confirmed some observations that I have made over the past several years.

First, the line between obscene wealth and abject poverty was bright. Fabulous motor and sailing yachts with price tags well into the 7 figures were moored within sight of the south Florida equivalent of cardboard boxes. Boats, barely floating and definitely not seaworthy were home to a large class of people struggling to survive. To me, this was just a graphic visual depiction of the growing disparity in our country between the haves and the have nots.

Second, the completely different culture confronting us in Florida suggested that our country is far less of a melting pot and far more pluralistic than the new jingoism of the Bush administration would have us believe. The pop culture of the 50s, 60s and 70s is giving way to regional and local pockets of cultural isolation with little concern for the greater good, or awareness of a national identity. Right now we are united by the common fear of terrorism, and the need for security, rather than common economic, cultural or nationalistic goals.

Finally, the middle class is in decline; the juxtaposition of wealth against poverty I saw in Miami highlighted the withering of the middle class. Of course, I was in a vacation destination, but given the prices, and taxes, I encountered, not many traditional middle class families were in evidence.

Like the Roman Empire before us, our country is faced with an increasingly diverse, pluralistic and self-centered population. We lack a moral center as evidenced by our recent scandals in banking, business and government. Seems like I, Claudius ought to be required reading in our schools. Those unfamiliar with the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them.


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