Rising inequality partly to blame for stagnant economy

Published in The News Tribune, October 25, 2012

Are we better off today than we were four years ago?   For too many people, the answer is no.

As disappointing as this fact is, it’s mostly due to the cycles that modern economies are prone to.  Four years ago we had just passed a cycle’s crest; today we’re slowly climbing out of its trough.  To compare these two periods is to contrast two points in the economy’s short term ups and downs.

This detail of course doesn’t make it any easier for those suffering through this cycle.  It’s just that such a perspective doesn’t reveal much about the true direction in which our economy is headed.   Continue reading

Op-ed: Approve Initiative 1240 to allow public charter schools

Published in The Seattle Times, October 22, 2012

Three previous swings at establishing public charter schools in Washington came up empty, so why are proponents for them still at bat?

Passion for charter schools is part of the reason Initiative 1240 is on the Nov. 6 ballot. Another reason is that hope springs eternal — a changing political environment opens up new possibilities and with it, perhaps, a different outcome. Finally, a new campaign for charters might succeed in dispelling common arguments against them that could change the debate.

One common argument is that there’s no evidence the average public charter school outperforms traditional public schools. While true, this fact shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that charters aren’t good for Washington’s children. Continue reading

We must give our trust to educators, but we must verify the results

Published in The News Tribune, October 11, 2012

What President Ronald Reagan liked to say about our relations with the Soviet Union, “Trust, but verify” is also true of education.  This is why I think the charter school initiative, I-1240, is a good idea:  it strengthens our trust in schools and it provides new ways to verify that this trust is deserved.

Comparing international relations and negotiations over nuclear disarmament treaties with education and charters schools deserves explanation.  To do that let’s turn back the clock.  Continue reading

A citizen’s worth cannot be measured by simple arithmetic

Published in The News Tribune, September 21, 2012

A colleague of mine bought a cup of coffee at the local coffee joint this week.  A moment later, cup in hand, she left the shop only to return a minute later to pay for three more.  She’d seen some contract workers outside cleaning up campus in anticipation of the pending arrival of our students.  On the spot she somehow decided that these newcomers to campus would appreciate some coffee.  After paying for their three cups, she informed them coffee would await them during their break, and then off she went to put in a day’s work.

Now I don’t know if Jeannie is among the 47 percent of Americans who don’t owe income taxes.  But I do know that paying taxes is only one of many ways that citizens make valuable contributions to our society. Continue reading

Look to Europe to improve our educational system

Published in The News Tribune, August 29, 2012

Looking to European countries for policy advice these days might seem like an untimely undertaking.  But when it comes to education, Europe is a key place to watch.  And we’d be well advised to not just pay attention, but to climb aboard the same bandwagon that so many European nations are now on.

Over the last several decades many European countries have made great strides in improving their educational systems.  This has been evident not just in international test scores, but also in the growing number of years their students remain in school. Continue reading

To be better informed, state voters could use a little nudge

Published in The News Tribune, August 15, 2012

A concept referred to as “nudge” has been getting some attention lately.  This is because the two professors who coined the term wrote a book (unsurprisingly called Nudge) that explains it to a general audience.

The basic claim in Nudge is that in a wide range of situations governments should “nudge” people into making better choices.  Turning to the recent election results, I’d argue that Washington State residents would benefit from a little nudging so that we cast more informed votes. Continue reading

Court ruling could leave state’s poor without access to health care,

Published in The News Tribune, August 2, 2012

The Supreme Court’s decision this summer to uphold the most controversial part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – the “mandate” requiring individuals to buy health insurance – was both historic and a critical victory for those battling to achieve universal health care in the United States.

However, while most of the public’s attention has rightly focused on the Court’s determination that the federal government can indeed require us to buy health insurance, this wasn’t the only provision in the ACA that opponents argued was unconstitutional:   They also claimed that the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid to more of the nation’s poor coerced states’ participation by setting the penalty for nonparticipation too high. Continue reading

In this upside-down world, public college means heavier debt load

Published in The News Tribune, June 6, 2012

With the latest news that tuition at our state’s public institutions of higher education will probably rise another 16 percent next year, it’s easy to imagine that our public colleges soon will be as expensive to attend as are the private ones.

But in fact for many students, private colleges have already become the more affordable option.  Continue reading

How many homeless, hungry? Make statistics public

Published in The News Tribune, May 23, 2012

Do you know how many children in Tacoma School District (TSD) schools are homeless?  Or how many people in Pierce County lived without heat or electricity this winter because their power was shut off?

If you don’t, you have lots of company.  And the invisibility of such problems in our community is itself part of the problem. Continue reading

Ex-offenders face incredible odds against shaking their past

Published in The News Tribune, May 9, 2012

If his warm greeting as you enter the downtown YMCA doesn’t get your attention, his story will.

Mychal Goode is an ambitious, smart and personable young man.  Like thousands of others around the state, he’s counting the days until he walks across the stage that marks the completion of his college career.  In his case he’ll have earned a bachelor’s in Business Administration from the University of Washington Tacoma.

Mychal (pronounced Michael) seems pretty typical – a full-time student holding down a full-time job at the Y, looking forward to the future.  We see a lot of students like that at UWT. Continue reading

Solutions exist for Social Security’s long-term problems

Published in The News Tribune, April 25, 2012

What is true in most poor countries today was true in our own long ago:  When elders can no longer support themselves or make sense of what is said around them, their children take care of them.  This is an example of a social compact that balances out in the long run, since children expect their kids in turn to care for them during their waning years.

Some may be surprised to learn that today this social compact is alive and well in our own country.  It is called Social Security.  With Social Security, the elderly look not to their own children, but rather to the collective contributions of the working generation; these workers in turn look to the next generation of workers for support during their retirement.  The terms of this social compact are now politically determined, but the basic idea is the same:  the economically productive support those who no longer are. Continue reading

When it comes to quality education, it’s the principal of the thing,

Published in The News Tribune, April 11, 2012

Teachers matter.  That’s just common sense.  I bet most of us can reflect back on those middle and high school days when we watched the second hand, seemingly in slow motion, tick away the interminable seconds of a boring class, or those times when an effective teacher launched us into a spirited debate that spilled over into the lunch hour and maybe even our homes.

In fits and starts, policy is very slowly catching up to common sense.  Pretty much everyone now agrees that we should prioritize attracting and retaining the best teachers to public education.  We’ll need money to do this, and there’s still a lot of debate over how we can best accomplish this.  But at least we’ve agreed on the why. Continue reading

No country for young (and undereducated, unemployable) men

Published in The News Tribune, March 28, 2012

Over the last six months Washington’s unemployment rate has fallen from 9.3 to 8.2 percent.  That’s terrific news. The same is occurring in states across the nation as employers are now hiring at a record pace.

Yet as some pessimistic sage surely said, every silver cloud has its dark lining.

The problem with our labor market is one I’ve been highlighting this month:   too many citizens have inadequate job-market skills with few options for upgrading them, and receive too little support for navigating what for them is an unstable job market.

Continue reading

Poor public policies send desperate people to dubious colleges

Published in The News Tribune, March 14, 2012

In my last column I argued that the life line we’re throwing to those at the bottom rungs of society is increasingly beyond their grasp. Truth is, we also don’t provide them with many chances to rise up.  With neither a hand out nor a hand up, too many citizens are consigned to pretty dim life prospects.

What’s more, other efforts taken to assist them have been akin to the actions taken by Captain Renault in the movie Casablanca.  The Captain famously responded to a shooting of a Nazi by a known assailant with the unforgettable instructions to “round up the usual suspects.”  Renault hoped that the appearance of vigilance would protect him from his evil superiors, and we all hope he was right. Continue reading

Safety net continues to shrink for those who need it most

Published in The News Tribune, March 2, 2012

The Obama Administration’s recently-proposed budget continues what has become a troubling trend in federal policy.  And it isn’t the growing debt I’m referring to.

What is is the large number of citizens who we seem to have given up on.  In fact, so forsaken are they, and dire the consequences to us of this abandonment, that I’ll use my next two columns to pick up where this one leaves off.

The trend is this:  We’re supplying our most vulnerable and low-skill citizens with fewer and fewer public dollars.  Instead, our nation’s “safety net” increasingly targets the rest of us, particularly those with jobs and a working- or middle-class income.  I’m all for helping the gainfully employed – especially those with low income — but when public dollars are scarce, the marginalized are the least capable of competing for them because few advocate on their behalf.  Not surprisingly, they’re losing out in the competition for public dollars.   Continue reading

Why should Lady Gaga pay a lower tax rate than Mitt Romney?

Published in The News Tribune, February 14, 2012

In my last column (TNT 2-1) I contended that Mitt Romney and others like him should pay more taxes, and that capital gains should be taxed at the same rate as income from work.

Many readers took issue with these claims.  Given the topic’s controversial and divisive nature — and more importantly the extent to which readers objected — I’m devoting this column to a more extended discussion of the subject.

A number of readers wrote in support of low taxes on capital gains on the grounds that lower tax rates are fair. Continue reading

Loopholes for wealthy weaken fairness of income tax system

Published in The News Tribune, February 1, 2012

It shouldn’t be surprising that Mitt Romney pays only 15 percent of his income in federal incomes taxes.  After all, he benefits from the fact that his income comes mostly in the form of capital gains – income from selling assets that have increased in value.  Capital gains are taxed at a top rate of 15 percent, which compares with a top rate of 35 percent on wage income.

This provision in the income tax code explains why Mitt Romney, Warren Buffett and most other super-rich Americans, pay less as a share of their income than do many working Americans.  Continue reading

Veterans need strong connection to civilians to help transition

Published in The News Tribune, January 18, 2012

As readers of this newspaper likely know, last year JBLM suffered a record number of suicides (TNT 12-30).  Tragically, this increase reflects a nationwide trend; suicide rates in the Army have doubled over the last 10 years.  Clearly all is not well with our armed forces.  Divorce rates are climbing.  And the unemployment rate among younger veterans now stands at 30 percent — twice the rate found among younger non-veterans.

In this column I’d like to draw attention to a slow shift occurring in civilian-military relations that contributes to the growing challenges faced by soldiers re-entering civilian life. Continue reading

Lawmakers need to focus on structural problems with budget

Published in The News Tribune, January 5, 2012

As our legislators return to Olympia, they must feel like the Bill Murray character in the movie Groundhog Day.  Each year they show up at Olympia and find that — once again — revenue falls far short of expenditures.  Let’s hope this year they find a way to awaken from this bad dream.

To start, legislators should begin distinguishing short- from long-term budget problems.  Short-term cyclical problems are caused by a weak economy.  Continue reading

All I want for Christmas is an improved health care system

Published in The News Tribune, December 21, 2011

Today’s column concerns “deadweight loss.”


Why anyone would coin a term “deadweight loss” (DWL) is beyond me.  But someone did and we’re stuck with it.  Of all economic expressions this is the worst, conjuring up images of the Mafia and concrete boots.  But DWL is important; in order to have a “healthy” economy we should eliminate it.  Read on to see where I’m going. Continue reading

Trouble 6,000 miles away can shake our financial well-being

Published in The News Tribune, December 2, 2011

It’s an extraordinary world we live in when a country 6,000 miles away and the size of Washington threatens America’s economy.

But so it is.  Even Olympia’s latest revenue forecast identifies evolving events in Greece as the wild card in its predictions.  How much our state government will have to cut services to our most vulnerable citizens hangs on the fate of Greek bonds – as well as on bonds of other European nations caught up in Greece’s contagion effect.   It goes to show how interconnected we’ve all become. Continue reading

Let’s be thankful that our problems are those of rich countries

Published in The News Tribune, November 24, 2011

These are divisive times.

It’s easy to see why.  Jobs are scarce, millions have lost their health care coverage, college debt exceeds credit card debt, income inequality is rising, more people are hungry, and state and federal governments look to be on unsustainable paths.   In the past, a robust economy and rising tax revenue succeeded in keeping some degree of division under wraps.

Today’s more austere times means that we now have to establish priorities rather than add new ones.  We’re faced with the inevitable – and unenviable — task of choosing between higher taxes or less spending. Continue reading

Flat tax might simplify matters – but it wouldn’t be fair

Published in The News Tribune, November 8, 2011

Many things are predictable this time of the year.  Earlier commercial appeals to our Christmastime splurges; twilight that sets in seemingly when lunch is over; and proposals for a flat tax, such as we now have from both Cain and Perry.

Actually, three out of every four years, we’re spared the last.  For that we should count our blessings. Continue reading

Back to square one with end of federal long-term care policy

Published in The News Tribune, October 25, 2011

With little fanfare, a Class Act died earlier this month.

Formally known as Community Living Assistance Services and Supports, Class Act was a short-lived health care program created as part of the recent health care overhaul.  The Obama Administration has just now cancelled it.

Class Act’s demise is noteworthy — certainly much more than would be indicated by its placement on the back pages of the newspapers.   Its end helps remind us of a present and growing problem we have yet to solve.   It also reminds us of the inadequacies in current health care policy. Continue reading