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The Current State of the Union(s)

The Current State of the Union(s)


There is a word which is currently stirring much thought and commentary.

With all due solemnity and respect for the people of Japan, I would say that Madison, Wisconsin is the epicenter of an earthquake which is sending tremors into every state capital of our country.

What’s all the hubbub, bub?

In case you have been living in a cave, allow me to enlighten you.  Desperate economic times have apparently called for desperate measures.  State legislatures are looking for ways to cut spending, and they have uncovered a very interesting phenomenon.  Government unions have been very adroit in negotiating excellent financial compensation for their members, including fringe benefits which are outpacing the benefits of many employees in the private sector.

Governors, emboldened by the example of their counterpart in Wisconsin, are attempting to change collective bargaining laws, so, in the very least, unions do not have as much, if any, control over wages and benefits.  Asking government union employees to pay more of their “fair share” of benefits has resulted in millions of dollars of proposed government savings.

Well, you would think that mass murderers have been cornered in the town square, because lynch mobs have formed against “both sides” of this dispute.  Protests have gone on unabated for days.  Teachers obtained false doctor’s notes excusing their absences from school, since some of these states are no-strike states.  Re-call elections have been proposed in multiple states, and no mercy is being shown to bold governors or legislators who chose to leave their jobs and cross state lines for several weeks of – shall we say – “vacation.”  (What’s up with that?!  Both Wisconsinites and Indianans sought “refuge” in Illinois!)

Please allow me to share my experiences with and views about unions.  At their inception, unions served very useful purposes.  Especially during the Industrial Revolution, managers were responsible for horrific abuses of working hours, conditions, pay, and benefits.  Employees formed unions to present united fronts to their bosses, so they could negotiate reasonable conditions.

While I am not naïve – and I know that management abuses do still exist today – those behaviors are very rare, and I believe unions – in the form that they were conceived – have outlived their usefulness.  In an age of shared decision-making, and participative leadership, no manager of a reputable organization could get away with abusive behavior in even the most subtle of forms.  Cries of “foul” regularly ring out, and news outlets are only too happy to capitalize on the crisis d’jour.

I have often wondered about the efficacy of unions during my thirty-plus years as a professional educator.  During my 7 years of teaching, I was miffed by what I believed to have been exorbitant fees and disproportionate percentage of my income to join the local, state, and national unions.  (In case you didn’t know, the National Education Association is the biggest and most powerful union in Washington, D.C.)  I was always threatened with the “need’ for insurance in case I found myself a defendant in litigation, and the administrators were always portrayed as the “bad guys” in these scenarios.

As a teacher, I was also frustrated by the issues taken up by the NEA and Iowa State Education Association.  Why were the delegates to these conventions spending so much time and money discussing the non-education-related dynamics of homosexuality and abortion?!  Even before I was a believer in Jesus Christ, I somehow inherently knew that these topics were superfluous to the school building.  (Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t dismiss these issues.  They are VERY important issues, but the more important issues for EDUCATIONAL unions are those related directly to the EDUCATION of students in classrooms.)

As a part of my Master’s degree program in school administration, I was trained by a Western Illinois University professor in the “art” and “science” of collective bargaining.  Looking back on the content of that course, I can now accurately point out that this was a class on gamesmanship more than determining what was in the best interests of students, educators, and parents.

The relationship between the Pleasant Valley Education Association and administration was the most adversarial in my experience.  Outrageous financial proposals were put on the bargaining table every year.  The teachers asked for too much.  The administration offered too little.  All of this blustering and caucusing did nothing to bring “unity” from either the “union” or the administration.  (I am at least pleased to add that THE BEST union in my working experience has been the Urbandale Education Association, which cooperated well with administration in a non-adversarial model of bargaining in which every penny was put on the table for discussion, and no outrageous proposals drew battle lines.  Also, the UEA did not automatically defend poor teachers who were asked to resign or to complete intensive assistance plans for the improvement of their teaching.)

During my last year of teaching, no one would run for the presidency of the Pleasant Valley union, so I unabashedly ran unopposed as a “let’s get something done together” platform.  I was elected.  If someone had a different platform, they should have run a write-in campaign!  Everyone knew where I stood.  After all, I was the son of a school administrator.  I remember the calls my Dad took at home.  I remember he had the best interests of his staff members in mind.  I remember when he was no longer a member of the union, because the collective bargaining laws of Iowa had precipitated rancor between teachers and principals and the end of union membership for school administrators.

As the PVEA President, I wasn’t exactly the “why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along” leader.  I wanted to fairly represent the teachers, and I was willing to make tough decisions on their behalf.  But I also didn’t want to fall lock-step into a union mentality which always immediately distrusted the intent of administration.  How ironic that one year I was the union president – 1986-1987 – and the very next year – 1987-1988 – I was Associate Principal of Pleasant Valley High School.  Needless to say, I was no longer a member of the PVEA as a school administrator!  And I can imagine that several of my teaching colleagues believed I had “sold out” to the “dark side of administration.”

I am pleased to report that I am now the Superintendent of a non-public school which does not have a union.  To be frank, there are times when I have unintentionally not acted in the best interests of the staff in this school, but there has generally not been a “need” for a union, because I want to intentionally do everything in my power to fairly compensate them for their work and to create working conditions which are favorable to student learning.  As a private school, our school will go out of business if we are not giving a good return on our “customers’” investment, and teachers need to be unencumbered to do their jobs.

But the school must also be unencumbered to end contractual relationships with teachers who are not helping students to learn.  I can honestly say that I have loved 99% of the teachers who have left our school for any number of issues.  While I can love people, I can also, even and especially as a Christian, expect employees to do their very best to honor and glorify God through their work.  We can love each other and still agree that parting ways would be the best course of action for students, parents, administrators, and especially the underperforming or misplaced teachers themselves.  I understand the emotion attached to losing employment, but can’t we also agree that the teachers themselves will be miserable in positions for which they are not suited?

This is all to say that I am not AGAINST unions.  But I am against unreasonable union leaders and managers.  And I am FOR government employees needing to pay a reasonable share of fringe benefits, especially with rising costs of health care.  Union leaders in some of these feuding states have indicated that they have “passed” on negotiating for higher wages to secure these excellent fringe benefits.  That may be true, but I would venture a guess that such an argument is sometimes/often a “white lie”  (aka intellectual dishonesty).

Right now, I am most incensed by the behavior of many (but not all) National Football League players and owners.  One of our school’s parents is a federal negotiator, and he rightly pointed out that greed is at the heart of “millionaires arguing with billionaires.”  And, all along, a family cannot afford to attend an NFL game featuring players who have (obscenely) compared the current situation as “slavery,” thus implying they are “slaves”!  Ah, to be that kind of “slave” who has that kind of talent and earns that kind of money and has the right at any time to walk away from that kind of work!

Unions have garnered a lot of attention lately, haven’t they?  You can no longer be ambivalent.  You’ve got to get into this discussion and game.  Unions are affecting all of us, whether you care to admit it or want to live in a state of denial.

The Current State of the Union(s)

American Gladiators: On the eve of battle, Paul Ryan arms the Right

With the release of his long term budget plan “The Path to Prosperity” there is no doubt that Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan is not only the talk of the town in Washington, but also the talk of cable news, YouTube, the blogosphere, my house, the White House, and probably even the Keebler Elf’s tree house (though I can’t quite get a read on how they lean politically). The fact that he has dominated the discussion across the Country for the last few days can’t be argued. I would take it a step further though. I would argue that Paul Ryan is the most significant Republican in America and will remain so through 2012, and that includes the eventual Republican Presidential nominee.

Exhibit #1 in making this case starts with the obvious; he has replaced talk with an actual plan. The American people know what instinct tells all humans, when you are facing a problem you need a plan solve it. While literally no one deemed the release of the Obama administrations budget last month a problem solving strategy, compared to mere words in the ether from Republicans the contrast required to reveal the extent of its weakness was nonexistent. Without contrast your position is without strength. Fundamentally this is the advantage the Ryan plan has now given Republicans.

To grasp the undeniable importance of contrast you need not look any further than the mind-boggling results of a Pew Research Center poll taken a month ago (March 8-14, 2011-m.o.e. +/- 3). The question was asked, “Who has the better approach to the budget deficit: Barack Obama, the Republicans in Congress, or is there not much difference at all?” To this 20% said “Obama”, 21% said “Republicans in Congress”, while a hard to fathom 52% responded “not much difference at all”. This is the ugly face of no leadership, and a complete repudiation of a Republican posture that, until a few days ago, spent months launching rhetoric into the discussion and not answers into the heart of the problem.

It is not so much that the Republican approach garnered only 21% approval, but after two years on an issue that upwards of 75% agree is a significant problem to have 52% not know that your approach is discernible from the Presidents is near criminal. Without leadership you have no solutions, without solutions from either side you have no distinction between the sides, thus leaving no advantage. To be exact, you get left with 52% who find you and your opponent interchangeable…not to mention a lot of work to do. The fact that, while others sat idle, his leadership has yielded a plan bold and realistic enough to supply the contrast needed to do this work is the first piece of evidence to support my claim that Paul Ryan sits atop the Republican mountain.

The work of moving polls like the one above will be focused on one, or I should say 33, targets. As shown by the current debate on this year’s spending, without a majority in the Senate a long term debt solution simply cannot be had. While you surely need the White House, holding the pen at the very end of the process does you no good. Make no mistake, the rubber meets the road for this entire clash in 33 Senate seat elections, and who will vicariously play a role in all? You guessed it… here is how.

It is not a reach to declare that the issue dwarfing all others in these 33 races will be spending and the deficit, nor is it so to assume that all Republicans Senatorial candidates will be running either directly on the Ryan budget plan, or on one closely derived from it. This means that on what will be the central issue of the election cycle, Paul Ryan has single-handedly created the agenda that Republicans nationwide will take to the voters. If the dynamics of this sound familiar it is because in many ways Ryan and his “The Plan for Prosperity” mirror Newt Gingrich and “The Contract with America”. In both cases one person, and more accurately, one document will be the unified cause of the Party. As this scenario unfolds Ryan will be this cause’s primary spokesman, and his performance in articulating and selling the plan will have a gigantic impact on all 33 Senate races. This task could not be in better hands. His unique ability as a spokesman leads to the final and least obvious point in proving that Paul Ryan’s star has fully risen.

You need not follow his career long to see that he is a different animal than most on the Hill. His grasp of fiscal issues and their individual numbers is stunning, and comes from an unusual childhood that saw him reading budgets in his early teens. Watching him in an interview setting leave talking points and party line generalizations behind in favor of using specific numbers to make his points is beyond both impressive and refreshing. The combination of this ability, his youth, and his willingness to apply his knowledge to doggedly pursue solutions in a world where most politicians settle for far less, could influence the next breed of leaders. If you think this is a stretch you must have forgotten how Bill Gates once made, of all things, it suddenly cool to be a “computer geek”. If this unlikelihood is possible it’s hard to argue that the same thing being done for “policy wonk” is outside the realm.

When considering all the evidence, the limb that one stands on in making the proclamation that he is the most significant Republican in the Country starts looking more like a sturdy branch. He is the creator of, the point man on, and the Party’s best spokesman for, the agenda of the central issue in the upcoming election cycle. While floundering for the previous two years Republicans succeeded only in proving that defending a philosophy is no substitute for fighting for a plan. His “Path to Prosperity” has armed the Republican Party with the ability to contrast themselves from their opponent. In fact, as it has played out, ultimate victory on this issue for Conservatives is defined by a President signing into law a form of the Ryan plan, case closed.

The next move now belongs to the Democrats, whose offering of a counter proposal later this week will be the inevitable showdowns final precursor. The coming weeks will be fascinating as the release of their plan will finally leave us with both combatants fully armored, with the walls sliding closed behind them, and each in plain view of the other. At long last both political parties will have their gladiators inside the coliseum…may the best idea win.

The Current State of the Union(s)

Night of the Rising Stars: The Good, The Strange, and The Future

If you did not know freshmen Kentucky Senator Rand Paul prior, and you attended Saturday night’s Iowa Republican Party event “Night of the Rising Stars” . . . then you certainly know him now.

I will get to Senator Paul, the evenings keynote speaker, momentarily but first let us briefly deal with the atmosphere and the purpose of the night’s event—recognizing the up and comers in the Iowa Republican Party.  The crowd of 300-400 took to their seats in the warm, ornate theatre of the Hoyt Sherman Place largely to celebrate the impressive and hard won gains by Iowa Republicans in the last election cycle.  The program included very short remarks from Senate Leader Paul McKinley, House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer, Secretary of State Matt Schultz, Party Chairman Matt Strawn, and Governor Terry Branstad.  Following Governor Branstad, Senator Chuck Grassley was brought up to introduce Senator Paul.  I will spare you of the particulars, as the real story lay in the last two speakers, but will apprise you of a few things of note that did happen during the body of the program.

Believe it or not a quasi-disco atmosphere was attempted to be created, which was odd due to the advanced mean age of those in attendance.  Thanks to a mirror ball hung from the ceiling, each speaker took to the stage under a shower of colored lights as the venue’s sound system blasted a song of their choosing.   The “Rising Stars,” though some were in attendance, were mainly celebrated through videos which showed clips of them at the Statehouse telling the camera what they do for a living and why they chose to run for office.  The crowd largely sat silent for the videos, with the exception of small outbursts of cheering at the appearances of Kim Pearson, Kent Sorenson, and Jack Whitver.

Thirty-one year old Secretary of State Matt Schultz provided the evenings first shot of energy with a robust presentation that included a fiery defense of his signature issue, requiring a photo ID be shown before voting.  Party Chair Matt Strawn followed, in a warm and charismatic style, with a few words about how the party had sought out principled candidates to run, and emphasized that a Conservative philosophy is critical to the State’s future.  Most interestingly he applauded Matt Schultz for his hard stance on the voter ID proposal, signaling that the Party itself is digging in for a fight on this issue.  Governor Branstad spoke for roughly two minutes, mainly about the economy.  He vowed to veto any one year budget proposals that may get sent to him and declared that “Iowa is back open for business.”

And now ladies and gentlemen . . .The main event.

The saying that “politics often makes for strange bedfellows” is usually used in referencing politicians of opposing parties that find themselves in an odd alliance.  The surge of a more libertarian-tinged Republicanism represented by the Tea Party, however, has created an increasing number of strange bedfellows inside the GOP tent.  This was on full display Saturday night in the somewhat strange decision to have Chuck Grassley introduce Rand Paul to the stage.  Beyond the obvious, a prominent role on a night of “Rising Stars” given to a man, although beloved, who was first elected to Iowa government in 1958, it is hard to imagine a more antithetical Republican to Rand Paul than Chuck Grassley.  This is not to say that Republicans ever will, or should be, in lock step on every issue, but a brief glance at Grassley’s career reveals countless fundamental breaks with Rand Paul’s particular ideological philosophy.  Not to belabor the point but this is a list that includes, and is certainly not limited to, the following:

Senator Grassley is an ardent supporter and fighter for Federal ethanol subsidies, he proposed a Constitutional Amendment in 2009 to prohibit flag burning, and most notably was one of twenty Republican co-sponsors on a Senate bill in 1993 that would have mandated that all Americans have health insurance.  On the last point it could be argued that this was done as a Republican response/alternative to the Clinton administration’s proposed “Hillary Care,” but doing so perfectly illustrates the stark contrast between the two Senators.  Whether you agree with it or not Rand Paul is not interested in, nor is he willing, to alter an ideological principal based on a current political reality.  A debate can be had on the wisdom of this approach, and the point can surely be made that not engaging in this way while in the minority can result in a more damaging piece of legislation eventually being passed.   But if one is to get an accurate picture of Rand Paul it is essential to know that compromise in this fashion is absent from his genetic make-up.

Senator Grassley entered stage-left to an enthusiastic round of applause from the audience.  The high-mark of his speech, and the loudest applause, came when he delivered a stern message to U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner, who is in the midst of budget cutting negotiations with Congressional Democrats.  To Boehner Grassley said in a raised voice, “Listen Mr. Speaker, we ran on a platform of cutting $100 billion, and were going to cut a $100 billion.”  Following a short, at times unsteady, few minutes that included multiple obligatory jokes about his age, he gave the floor to Senator Paul.

As was his custom during his Senate campaign, Paul hit the stage to AC/DC’s song “TNT,” and started with a few gracious words for Senator Grassley.  Normally at a political party event like this you would take kind and complimentary words being thrown back and forth amongst the speakers as standard procedure.  Although the pleasantries were exchanged on this night, taking it as a given would have been a mistake.  In addition to being an outspoken critic of past Republican Congresses, Senator Paul spent upwards of 15% of the text in his recently published book “The Tea Party Goes To Washington” brutalizing Republicans with a near prideful zeal that would even raise the eyebrow of Keith Olbermann.  Likely to the benefit of the audience, these kind remarks to Senator Grassley signaled that Senator Paul had self-imposed a “no fly zone” on fellow Republicans for the evening.

Senator Paul delivered his twenty-two minute address with no podium and without notes.  His delivery was very smooth and the concept of his speech was very well thought out.  Anyone who has heard his father before would quickly realize that he is a much better public speaker than his dad.  The premise of a large portion of his speech was to use relatively obscure stories from American history and weave them into the issues of the present in order to make his points and to answer questions that he, rightfully, assumed the audience would have about him.  Though it was not asked, one such question he answered was if he would compromise while in Washington.  He happens to sit in “The Great Compromiser” Henry Clay’s old desk in the Senate, and he used Clay’s story of “compromising” in agreeing to the expansion and extension of slavery in order to preserve the Union.  If choosing this particularly horrific compromise as his example was not enough to make his position known, before leaving the topic he challenged the audience to ask themselves, “Is sometimes compromising really a misplaced ideal?”

He then subtly addressed the unease that he creates, even amongst Conservatives, by telling the story of a doctor from Boston who, against the pleadings of the town’s medical community, saved countless people by putting into practice the medical procedure of inoculation.  The doctor had enough faith in the eventual result to try it on his own son.  By doing so he saved his son’s life, which ultimately led to the procedure become standard practice for all future generations.  He summarized the story, along with the defense of his approach to politics, by saying, “It took someone brave enough and bold enough to step forward against popular opinion and do what he felt was right.  I think we need more people like that.”

His boldness is probably best known to people in the area of cutting spending and reducing the size of government.  He spoke at length on the problem of overspending in Washington, repeatedly hitting on the theme that “We face a day of fiscal reckoning.”  In reference to the current debate regarding last year’s budget he scoffed at a possible compromise being in the ballpark of $33 billion.  “Were talking trillions in deficits, but were talking billions in cuts.”

Going into the event I was certainly in agreement with his general message and had read his book, but did not have a firm opinion of him one way or the other.  I left being very impressed, as did those sitting around me.  We apparently were not the only ones.  Reached for comment afterword State Senator Jack Whitver, one of the nights “Rising Stars,” responded “I was impressed with Senator Paul’s message.  I think his message resonates with Conservative voters.  He addressed the social issues and he was also very clear about the spending problems in Washington.”  He continued, “While he did not address whether he was going to run for President, I am confident that he will be part of the discussion in one way or another.”

In Paul’s recently published “The Tea Party Goes to Washington” he authors a simple sentence that is about as close as you can get to a mantra for how he plans to go about stamping Washington D.C. with his individual brand of Conservatism—“It’s hard to imagine changing the status-quo by only considering solutions acceptable to the status-quo.”  While pronouncements like this only recently have become red meat for Republicans, and in turn have become a plentiful fare, Senator Paul has working in his favor a unique and sub-conscious factor that leaves his bona fides and sincerity, in this regard anyways, hard to question.  Knowing whose house he grew up in one gets the feeling, if not the assurance, that his political mindset is one that he has had for quite some time.  A mindset that now happens to have an enthusiastic and receptive audience, and not the other way around.  Ironically, he may be in a position to turn the potential negative of his father’s political career into a positive that simultaneously affirms his genuineness while separating him from the growing number of newly converted “hardline” Conservatives.  This authenticity is something that will serve him well down the road if the Tea Party groundswell ends up having the legs to impact future ballot boxes in the same way it did in the 2010 mid-term elections.  In terms of speaking ability, substance, and grasp of the issues Senator Paul appears to be a future force on the national scene for the Republican Party.  If past is indeed prologue, four years from now Iowa GOP supporters may very well look back at this event as the first time they were tasked with mentally vetting Mr. Paul, and not the last.

The Current State of the Union(s)

Doctor Feelgood

Leave it to Mötley Crüe to be the prophets of the age.  In 1989 they recorded their high-test Doctor Feelgood disc that contained the lead single by the same name.  Besides being a musical treat, the song foretells (or retells) a very old story.  Living amongst us, in the pit of our deepest worries, is the man that can make it all go away.  We aren’t necessarily certain as to how he actually does it, but we really want to believe that he can do it.  Even if it’s a hoax, that is just fine.  We need a visit, every once-in-awhile, from the good Doctor Feelgood.  It is the messianic story.  And he is the agent in Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. The chorus of the tune goes like this:

Let him soothe your soul, just take his hand
Some people call him an evil man
Let him introduce himself real good
He’s the only one they call ‘Feelgood’

So, what does Dr. Feelgood’s tell us? Please, pull up a chair.

  1. All of our overwrought fears are completely unwarranted, senseless and harmful.
  2. We can all lock arms and work in a symphonic fashion to solve for any issues we might face.
  3. The data is “on his side” and that he (Dr. Feelgood) has a Gnostic understanding of its meaning.
  4. Everyone’s interests are being considered and no difficult trade-offs must be made.
  5. The Promised Land is right around the corner, just let him work their magic.
  6. The notion of Evil is silly and outdated, and the only enemy we really have is ourselves.
  7. The reason we are in trouble is that we have outdated beliefs that can be easily dismissed.
  8. We have been duped by the other guys, who do not have our best interests at heart.
  9. Our feelings of being oppressed are completely justified, and we really are the victims.
  10. The fate of humanity is one paved with love and simplicity and peace and hope and goodness.

Gosh, that all feels so good doesn’t it?  I, for one, feel better already.  We can be 100% worry-free just by accepting these ten very easy-to-follow steps.  Just let him soothe your soul!  In faith, just take his hand…

He is our only hope.

And that would be true, but for the existence of one small detail that we might want to ponder for just a moment.

The fact that some people call him an Evil Man does not make it not so.

Our kindergartners are taught that when a strange man pulls up in a car and offers you a ride, run away and tell an adult.

Lesson for first graders: When the strange man shows up again and starts spouting off the list enumerated above, run away and tell an adult.

Lesson for adults: When the President of the United States incorporates the entirety of the above list (several times) in the same State of the Union speech: run away and drive him out of office.

The Current State of the Union(s)

How To Fix Our Schools

I’m not one to spend time commenting on something as innocuous as a movie, but I just finished watching something that was both compelling and surprising.

Davis Guggenheim’s documentary “Waiting For Superman” had my attention for the entire 111 minutes, and I learned some important things about the successes of some alternative charter schools, the bureaucratic nightmares that have impeded some schools from succeeding, and most importantly the devastating stranglehold that the teacher’s unions exert in ensuring that teachers are as demotivated as possible.  The story of the attempts by the District of Columbia school district to partner with the teacher’s union to create a pathway to success is scandalous, and clearly ensures that failing teachers never have to be held accountable.

I get why unions came to exist, and I get the fact that some unions may actually still create value in some situations. However, I think we are far past seeing any value in government and education unions.  Watching the president of the American Federation of Teachers extoll the priority of the children and yet support the use of tenure to protect intentionally negligent teachers from being fired is just one more example of how union bosses are more interested in money and power than the supposed goals of their organizations.

It was encouraging to follow the stories of several families across the country where the children were motivated to succeed but faced challenges in affording a better education that is available in public schools.  The stories were heartbreaking.

Although Superman is clearly not going to be the savior of our education system, the background of Geoffrey Canada and the work he is doing with Harlem Children’s Zone, along with the work of the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools across the country.

Spending more money on public schools just doesn’t seem like the right priority to solve our diminishing education issues… and I am not convinced No Child Left Behind is helping.  Dealing head on with the unions and giving administrators the power to hold teachers accountable is our best hope for making our public schools viable again.

I heartily recommend “Waiting For Superman”.  I downloaded it on iTunes, and it should be available through most DVD outlets.  You can also get more information at

The Current State of the Union(s)

Measure the Cost

March 19th marked an unusual anniversary for me.

Eighteen years ago on that very day, I drank my last drop of alcohol.

Yes, it’s true.  I am a tee-totaller.  But before you declare me intolerant of those who drink, please hear my full story and how I came to the conviction of no longer drinking.

I never was a big drinker.  I really didn’t like to put any substances in my body which would have inhibited my intellect or athletic abilities.  I never tried any illegal drugs, and I especially abstained from alcohol when I was playing football.  (I played high school and college ball.)

However, in the off-season, even when it was not legal for me to do so, I would drink a beer or two.  Gin and tonics were my drink of choice in college.  As an adult, I acquired a taste for cheap champagne.  When I got married, I learned about the refreshing taste of Long Island Iced Tea, a mixed drink with five different shots of alcohol.  I “celebrated” my successful defense of my doctoral thesis by drinking two of these concoctions, but I don’t remember much of the “celebration.”

Still, I was not given to drunkenness very often when I was still drinking alcohol.  There were periodic lapses in judgment, in that regard, but I generally maintained my self-discipline.

I maintained such self-discipline, that is, until Friday, March 19, 1993.

On that night, spring break began at Urbandale High School, where I served as Principal.  Since, in my own mind, I had so much catch-up work from the first three academic quarters of the school year, I stayed behind in Iowa, while my wife Cheryl and daughter Molly ventured to Nashville for time with family.  So I had the entire week before me to work in the office.  (My addiction to work is the topic for an entirely different commentary.)

But I “gave myself permission” to do some more “celebrating” before the work began.  On the first Friday of spring break – March 19th – I accompanied some of my friends to a nearby restaurant.  At no time did I consume any food of substance besides chips and salsa, but I did fill my stomach with marguerita after marguerita.  The drinks were flowing freely for me and for my friends.  Alcohol relaxed the “governor” of my brain, so I lost inhibition, and I believe I can safely recall cacophonous laughter among my peers.

Good sense lost out that night.  My brain also should have “told me” not to drive after I had drunk so much.  But drive I did.  I do not recall very much about the trip from that restaurant several miles across town to a friend’s house for a continuation of our escapades.  Once again, I showed poor judgment by continuing to drink and by mixing my drinks.  I don’t even know what I was drinking, but I believe there were some “experimental mixtures” of ingredients.  Still, I had not eaten dinner.

At some point, I must have tired and indicated to the rest of my literal party that I should drive home, which was just a few blocks away.  Again, I don’t recall the trip at all.  But I made the drive home safely, stumbled into bed (perhaps with all of my clothes on), and settled-in for what I thought would be an uneventful night.

The night was not uneventful.  At some time in the early morning hours, I awoke with a start.  There was a knifing pain in my stomach.  I tried to roll over and ignore the sharp twisting of my gut, but to no avail.  My mind was still in the throes of alcohol- and sleep-induced stupor, but I could tell that something was very wrong with me.  I figured I could get up and “walk off” this physical infirmity.  So I ventured to the kitchen.  I looked out the window over my kitchen sink into the still, dark night.  I hunched over the sink.  And, then, I experienced something I hope to never again experience in my life.

The dry heaves hit me.  Perhaps you know this feeling yourself.  I hope not.  In my 52+ years on this earth, I have only experienced dry heaves this one time.  I will spare you the gory details, because this is not a pleasant experience at all.  I hate being sick.  And I hate being sick with the flu – when a person IS able to empty the contents of his stomach and at least find some relief from the pain.

The dry heaves allow for no relief.  Nothing comes up, except a gagging reflex which causes the entire body to shudder with pain.  The worst of the night was probably only a few minutes in length, but the pain played tricks with my mind, and I suffered through one of the most horrible maladies of my life.

Of course, I wanted sympathy from my lovely bride after I awoke and recounted the ill effects of my evening to her by telephone the next day.  I rightly got no sympathy.  I had brought the horrible experience upon myself, and I had suffered the natural and logical consequences of my poor decision-making.

Worse that that – when I did return to my right mind – I thought about some other outcomes which could have – but by the grace of God – did not occur.  During both of my drives in a drunken state, I could have easily been picked up by police officers for operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol.  High school principals who get arrested for such offenses generally get fired, and they do not find better jobs.  Worse that that, I could have wrecked my car and killed myself or someone else.

I played all of those scenarios out in my mind, and I, quite frankly, shuddered in fear.

So I made a vow to myself on that night that I would never take another drop of alcohol, and, incredibly, I have honored that vow for 18 years now.

Do I believe ALL people should give up drinking alcohol?  No, absolutely not.  My Bible commands me, “Do not get drunk on wine.”  The Bible does not tell me, “Do not drink wine.”  My conviction, after a VERY dramatic experience, is to not drink alcohol.  Another person can have a much different conviction.

Still, I should be clear about drunkenness.  I abhor and I am appalled by the practice, which is rampant in the world.  I am amazed when I read about people who get picked up for multiple drunk driving offenses, and we all know in our hearts that they are driving MANY, MANY other times while under the influence of alcohol.  Why can’t they stop their drunkenness and drunk driving?  Don’t they care about their own safety and the safety of others on the road?  I understand the power of addiction, but such is no excuse for endangering others.

I made that very point once in front of a large audience when I was very openly sharing the experience I had on March 19, 1993 and my subsequent decision not to drink.  I was working very hard not to sound judgmental.  I wanted others to learn from my example.  No dramatic testimony should go unwasted, if the story can help even one person in an audience.  But I was roundly criticized for my words and for using the bully pulpit of my leadership for this purpose.  I heard second-hand that someone went so far as to say that I was “acting holier than thou.”  (I understood that these words were probably borne of conviction, but they were no less stinging in their effect.)

What’s my point?  Measure the cost.  In the case of this extremely important decision, determine for yourself whether drinking in excess is worth the most negative outcomes.  Decide whether drinking and driving is really in your best interests or the interests of others.  I am not asking any adult of legal age to follow my example, because each of us must live our own lives.

From my faith persuasion as a born again Christian, I am accountable to God for my decisions.  I will do everything in my power (and, hopefully, under His supernatural power) to honor and glorify Him.  Such is the acid test for me.  Will my thoughts, words, and actions honor and glorify God?  I must be willing to answer this question in the affirmative.

Abuse of alcohol has become a menace to individuals, marriages, organizations, neighborhoods, and whole communities.  But alcohol is not the problem in and of itself.  Our own sin and poor decision-making is the problem.  Alcohol only exacerbates the problems – leading to a greater incidence of sexual promiscuity, divorce, crime, parental estrangement from children, financial ruin, lost work time, and loss of human life.

Any adult of legal age has the right to drink alcohol.  But he also has the responsibility to drink wisely.  I did not drink wisely on March 19, 1993, and, now, I choose differently – to resist a temptation which could have had far-reaching effect on my own life and the lives of others.  Every person must make a decision for himself.  Every person should come to her own conviction.  All of us must exercise our wills to rid our culture of a scourge which will seemingly not go away anytime soon.  Will you?

The Current State of the Union(s)

Reducing The Cost Of Health Care – For Real

That title is not out of a fiction novel. It could happen right here in our time.

A few weeks ago, both the Obama Administration and the US House made major moves to begin limiting the outlandish awards being handed out by some juries in medical malpractice cases. This area has long been a trial lawyers’ playground and each of us is paying the price.

We may be making the right kind of progress now. The President included $250 million in his budget so that the Department of Justice could work with states to rewrite their medical malpractice laws and see real, effective change on this issue. The proposal provides some specific areas of relief by using judges with expertise in this area to decide cases instead of allowing juries to dole out unreasonable awards. Additional proposals might include creating reliable standards for doctors to operate under that would allow them to prove they were not negligent and a shift from full liability of every entity involved, to proportional liability amongst all parties (hospitals, doctors, insurance companies, etc.).

House Republican efforts are a little more straightforward. They would impose a cap on non-economic damages awarded from juries. This would take out much of the incentive for the frivolous and costly lawsuits in the medical industry. Here is a more detailed summary of House File 5, cleared through committee about a month ago (you can read the bill here):

  • Help Efficient, Accessible, Low Cost, Timely Healthcare (HEALTH) Act of 2011 – Sets conditions for lawsuits arising from health care liability claims regarding health care goods or services or any medical product affecting interstate commerce.
  • Sets a statute of limitations of three years after the date of manifestation of injury or one year after the claimant discovers the injury, with certain exceptions.
  • Limits noneconomic damages to $250,000. Makes each party liable only for the amount of damages directly proportional to such party’s percentage of responsibility.
  • Allows the court to restrict the payment of attorney contingency fees. Limits the fees to a decreasing percentage based on the increasing value of the amount awarded.
  • Allows the introduction of collateral source benefits and the amount paid to secure such benefits as evidence. Prohibits a provider of such benefits from recovering any amount from an award in a health care lawsuit involving injury or wrongful death.
  • Authorizes the award of punitive damages only where: (1) it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that a person acted with malicious intent to injure the claimant or deliberately failed to avoid unnecessary injury the claimant was substantially certain to suffer; and (2) compensatory damages are awarded. Limits punitive damages to the greater of two times the amount of economic damages or $250,000.
  • Denies punitive damages in the case of products approved, cleared, or licensed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), or otherwise considered in compliance with FDA standards.
  • Provides for periodic payments of future damages.

The movement on both sides should be seen as a win for health care consumers. Runaway litigation has led to massive increases in unnecessary medical procedures and huge run ups in doctors’ insurance premiums, and will continue to spin out of control. All of those expenses are passed on to the premium payer and the taxpayer, in other words, you and me. Now is the time to enact real medical liability reform.

The Current State of the Union(s)

The Lost Art of Governing

The world of modern American politics has often been described as “Hollywood for the ugly.” While this may or may not be true, politicians are indeed asking us to do what film directors do when we attend the movies—suspend disbelief. Removing reality and practicality certainly facilitates a good story and makes for fantastic special effects, but when these principles are used in running a government the results are, predictably, disastrous.

Though you wouldn’t think you would have to inform our elected officials of such things, the sad truth is that every non-creative discipline is subject to cumbersome, but necessary confines. In other words—reality.

This is true not only in the fields of engineering, architecture, aviation, music, and chemistry, but also in governing. The skill in any of these endeavors lies in achieving a desired result within the confines of a given discipline, and skill is precisely what is lacking in the vast majority of our Legislators. If you are an engineer or an architect you are constrained in your designs by pesky things such as physics, load bearing, and torque. In aviation you are constrained by Newton’s laws of motion and gravity. Musicians are largely required to write and play inside a given key. These are the reasons that you don’t simply draw your dream house on a sheet of paper and give it to a builder to begin construction; or why anyone can’t just pick up an instrument, randomly play a bunch of notes, and have it sound good.

In governing the main confines that an American politician must adhere to are the Constitution and the budget. The mess that our Country finds itself in currently can largely be attributed to a lack of discipline in complying with these two constraints. That is not to say that the last three decades of our elected officials have not been skilled at anything, just that they have shown prowess in the areas that benefit themselves and not our Nation. They have by and large focused on, and have mastered, the art of getting elected and re-elected. They have succeeded in the craft of politics, a far different and easier thing than governing.

What we are in dire need of at this moment is a renaissance in the art of governing. This entails providing the most results with the resources you have on hand. Fiscally speaking the concept is as simple as taking projected revenues for a fiscal year and working backwards from that number to zero. This is not to say that the process is not complex, but that the complexities and hard work lay in the prioritizing. Fighting these battles needs to be the “serve us” part of the public service that our legislators are supposedly providing us. The fact is that when they appropriate without the boundaries of a budget they are shirking off all the hard work and bitter infighting. In turn they are doing us all a public “disservice.”

A look back at the make-ups of the last three Congresses provides some insight into why, particularly fiscally, they have failed so miserably. The 109th Congress was sworn in 2005, the 110th in 2007, and the 111th in 2009. The members whose previous occupation was listed as “Accountant” numbered five in the 109th and bumped up to six for both the 110th and 111th sessions. This means that of the bodies 535 members an equal number (six) listed their prior job as “Peace Corp. volunteer” as those who did “Accountant.” Perhaps a more relevant and disturbing development is that the 109th Congress, for the first time in history, had a greater number of members list “public service/politics” as their prior profession than list business (195 to 193). This trend continued in both the 110th and 111th Congresses, with the 111th being the first in history to have “public service/politics” as their most listed prior occupation, beating out both business and law.

Having such a large number of leaders with their formative experience being politics is clearly unhealthy and you need not be a sage to predict the outcome. Reaffirming that any child can color outside the lines, it is hardly surprising that since the 109th Congress was sworn in in 2005 the National Debt has grown from $7.95 trillion to the $14.1 figure it stands at today. What this shows is that while the average years served by our Legislators is on the rise, along with an ever increasing amount of political experience had even prior to taking office, their fiscal performance worsens.

Though discouraging, as long as our body politic is composed of and replenished with those schooled and skilled primarily in politics we will continue to see destructive results. There is a skill to good governance. Like any other discipline the skill resides in achieving results within confines, in this case the Constitution and the budget. When we are able to elect leaders with this skill we will have elected prioritizers instead of mere appropriators. Until then we will remain victims of the lost art of Governing.

Wisconsin: Not Just Cheeseheads After All

Wisconsin: Not Just Cheeseheads After All

Who would have thought that the state with the first Socialist governor and subsequent Socialist Party candidate for President, Robert LaFollette, would be the first state to actively attempt to bring the public employee unions under control?  What’s next?  Vermont goes Conservative?

So much of life can be equated to the supply and demand theory of economics.  That is, there’s unlimited demand for things, but always a limited supply and when demand outstrips supply, there’s friction.  This concept can be applied to the present fiscal situation that Wisconsin, and all states for that matter, face.  They are out of money.  Tax revenues, that is, supply, have outstripped the demand for services.  The public unions, in fact all unions, have been feeding at the trough of the nation’s largesse for years.  Governors have conceded “rights” (also known as privileges in the real world) to them in an attempt to keep these spoiled brats, for lack of a better term, happy.

But state goverments are struggling to provide basic services, and in order to remain fiscally solvent, something has to give.  Credit Governor Walker with having the cajones (a Texas term for chutzpah), to admit to his state and the rest of the country that this has to stop.

The consequences of what’s playing out in Madison are significant.  Does a special interest group get to dictate how much of the fiscal pie they get to keep?  Or does the duly-elected governor decided how to run his state?  And if the unions fall in Wisconsin, what about all the other states that are stuggling to balance their budget and keep taxes down?  And at what point do the taxpayers, the customers, the folks actually paying the bills, get to decide how much they’re willing to pay for under-performance?  I don’t get to demand a raise if I don’t perform in my job.  How are the unions any different?

I know the union contracts were negotiated in good faith, but the times are different.  A job with fewer benefits is better than no job at all.  The supply of money is limited, and they don’t get to demand more than what there is available.  And the people who actually do the paying should get to call the shots.

I wish you the best, Governor Walker.  To quote Simon and Garfunkel, “…our nation turns it’s lonely eyes to you…”.

The Current State of the Union(s)

Time to Sow the Seeds of Competition

The following is a guest piece by Stephen DeMaura, President of Americans for Job Security, a national conservative issue advocacy organization. For more than 10 years AJS has advocated for pro-growth, pro-jobs public policy to strengthen the American economy. -ed.

Make Room in the Market, Monsanto Monopoly

There’s a battle in agriculture that deserves a greater focus:  The Seed Trait Wars.

What our families, our nation and the world will eat in the future depends in large part on the future of a robust, competitive biotech seed sector.  Farmers and independent seed companies will need seeds with the genetic traits to deliver higher yields from the same land no matter the conditions.  To do that we’ll need more competition.

It’s competition that drives innovation, better prices, and more choices, and competition that gives farmers the right seeds to grow what they need, where they need to grow it.


The world will need 70 percent more food in 2050 than it does today, according to the UN.   Farmers will need the best seeds to grow the crops that will feed the increasing number of people that will populate this planet.  And they’ll need seeds that are genetically engineered with traits to account for their unique, geographic region and needs. COMPETITION CRITICAL

We’re at a critical juncture for want of competition.  For example, Monsanto controls nearly 100 percent of the soybean seed trait market and about 80 percent of the corn seed trait market, as shown here. The company is using anticompetitive tactics to assert its grip as a single supplier, cement its monopoly, and block choice for farmers.


The primary tactic in Monsanto’s playbook is something we’re used to seeing in the pharmaceutical industry.  It’s called patent extending.  Prolonging the life of a patent by introducing a “new” product that is essentially the same as the one with the expiring patent.  Monsanto’s Roundup Ready® patent in corn and soybeans ends in 2014.  Its new Roundup Ready 2 Yield® technology is essentially the same as the first generation product.  Read what the American Antitrust Institute thinks of the state of play in the biotech seed sector here.

The problem is that Monsanto wants to have its cake and eat it, too. Have the new patent and restrict the availability of the old one as its patent nears expiration.  With generic competition, new seeds could be brought to market in 2015 and innovation  would be gated only by the bounds of creativity, not bottlenecked by monopoly.


  • Preventing farmers from creating and choosing the seeds that would work best for them
  • Charging monopoly prices (e.g, in 2009, announcing a 42 percent price increase for a product [RR2Y® in soybeans] that demonstrably provided no significant quality improvement)


If America’s farmers and the world’s farmers are going to produce the amount and variety of affordable food we’ll all need, farmers will need choice and innovation that comes with full and fair competition.

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