Archive | May, 2013

The Morning Grumpy – 5/31/13

31 May

All the news, views, and filtered excellence fit to consume during your morning grumpy.

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1. Brad Riter and I recorded a podcast about grocery store etiquette. It’s absurd, trivial, and thus far is the most popular podcast we’ve ever recorded. Which says a lot about the listeners. Enjoy.

2. The average American is as likely to be crushed to death by televisions or furniture as they are to be killed by a terrorist.

3. How activists are turning Chicago’s housing crisis into a huge opportunity.

The U.S. Postal Service, which tracks these numbers, reported that 62,000 properties in Chicago were vacant at the end of last year, with two-thirds of them clustered as if to form a sinkhole in just a few black neighborhoods on the South and West Sides. Currently about 40 percent of all homeowners in these communities owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth, and countywide 80,000 foreclosures are wending their way through circuit court. Last spring, a nine-month study conducted by the National Fair Housing Alliance revealed what everyone in these neighborhoods already knew: After forcing out families in foreclosure, banks failed to properly market, maintain and secure the vacated homes. Thieves subsequently entered many of the properties and stripped them of copper and anything else that could be trafficked.

Sound familiar, Buffalo?

It’s not that the City of Chicago and its public and private partners don’t care about the areas gutted by foreclosures; it’s just that as investments, the numbers on these blocks simply don’t add up, and no amount of good intentions is going to change that any time soon. Since 2009, the city has funneled $168 million from the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program into the purchase of 862 vacant foreclosures, fixing up 804 of them, at an average cost of $110,000. It sank $350,000 into the repairs of one home, but even at the asking price of $105,000, no buyers could be found. So far only 91 of the units have sold.

Yup, sounds familiar. What does a city do if the property value doesn’t support renovation for purchase or rental?

Cook County now plans to form what will become the nation’s largest land bank, an entity that will acquire thousands of vacant residences, demolishing some, turning others into much-needed rentals and holding onto others until they can be released, strategically, back into the market. By clearing titles and back taxes, the land bank hopes to attract the most responsible of the investor groups that are currently gobbling up distressed housing in neighborhoods with far better prospects.

And activists are filling in the gaps. The article is filled with solid ideas to benchmark for use in Buffalo.

4. How to hire good people rather than nice people.

Nice people care if you like them; good people care about you. Nice people stretch the truth; good people don’t. If you tell a nice person to do something evil, they might do it because they do not want to upset you; a good person will refuse to do it.

You might think you are a good person, but you are fallible, so if you want to avoid inadvertently doing something evil you must surround yourself with good people, not nice people.

How do you separate the good from the nice? If you do what I do, it will be a piece of cake.

Nice people will allow you to hire them even if they know they are not among your best candidates; a good person won’t let you hire them unless that is what is best for you.

If only more hiring managers in the corporate thought this way and followed this guys tips…

5. Why are athletes and affluent sports fans so obsessed with the idea of a “blue collar” work ethic? Seeing as how most actual “blue collar” folks can’t afford a ticket to a pro sporting event.

They are pro athletes who have chauffeurs and nutritionists and such. Most of the fans in the arenas watching them are probably not blue-collar either, in the sense of working with their hands or performing other physical labor. For one, there just aren’t that many blue-collar workers anymore: Half as many Americans work in manufacturing now as they did in the 1970s, for example. That doesn’t mean it isn’t still possible to make a decent living in a blue-collar job, but probably not a nice enough living to afford the $955 ticket that will get you on TNT behind the announcers in Indianapolis’ Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Meanwhile, the current fashion in building and promoting the arenas and stadiums that teams play in is to play up the luxury factor; everything is premium state-of-the-art this and black-leather Wi-Fi-enabled that. Buy into the Krieg DeVault Club Level at a Pacers game and you’re guaranteed your own “dedicated service staff member.”

As I get older the phoniness of professional sports becomes increasingly disheartening.

Fact Of The Day: The terms “left wing” and “right wing” refer to the seating arrangements in the French National Assembly just before the French Revolution.

Quote Of The Day: “Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots. It is a set of general principles- distilled over the course of the twentieth century, spanning fields as diverse as the physical and social sciences, engineering, and management. …During the last thirty years, these tools have been applied to understand a wide range of corporate, urban, regional, economic, political, ecological, and even psychological systems. And systems thinking is a sensibility- for the subtle interconnectedness that gives living systems their unique character.” – Peter Senge

Video Of The Day: Prancersize

Song Of The Day: “World Destruction” – Afrika Bambaataa with John Lydon

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AFP Takes a Victory Lap

30 May

AFP’s Victory Lap in Clarence

It takes a lot to get me to join something. Between work, my kids’ school and afterschool activities, time is not a luxury. But I became a joiner last week. 

I have joined hundreds of other dedicated and concerned taxpayer-parents of current, future, and former Clarence school students, who have united not just to maintain, but to improve, the quality of Clarence schools. You can find us at www.keepclarenceschoolsgreat.com, and we’re putting our names behind our effort. We aren’t funded, advised, or otherwise working with any union, special interest group, or lobbying organization anywhere – especially not Albany or DC.

On May 21st, an overwhelming majority of voters rejected the Clarence Board of Education’s proposed 2013-2014 budget, which contained a school tax hike of 9.8%. Because of that defeat, several more dedicated, professional educators will be summarily and unceremoniously fired. The district is losing its last social worker. Several sports programs will be eliminated. We aren’t happy about this outcome, but we accept it. We’re going to make sure that the upcoming revote budget does as little harm to the students as possible. We certainly don’t see anything about which to gloat or cheer. 

Our group extends its thanks and best wishes to the teachers, librarians, and staff who will soon find themselves out of work. We know that budget cuts aren’t just abstract theory, but that they affect real people and their futures. Make no mistake – these cuts will adversely affect the quality of the education Clarence’s children receive. What is there to applaud? 

We had hoped that people would see past the slick propaganda, and would vote to maintain the quality of the schools for current and future generations. The schools have undergone many cuts in the last decade, and simply aren’t what they used to be. Thanks to prior years’ cuts, there’s no marching band, no enrichment program, music and art programs have been reduced, and with the most recent round of cuts we’re looking at larger class sizes and elimination of freshman sports and half of of the modified sports programs.  Reduced opportunity benefits no one. Where’s the good news? 

And when is it enough? While we should be discussing how Clarence can regain the #1 spot in Business First’s rankings, we’re scapegoating teachers and harming students’ opportunities. The district’s spending is well under control, and administrative costs represent 6% of the budget.  The truth is that  the district is already run efficiently – “like a business” – and we won’t ever cut our way to excellence.

But if the rejection of the budget and the loss of dedicated teachers and staffers had one silver lining, it’s that we’re awake now; energized to ensure that the excellent Clarence schools our kids deserve aren’t just maintained, but improved.

We think the schools are sustainable already; they’ve been sustainable this whole time. The cutting, however, is unsustainable.

As taxpayers, we demand value for our money, and the Clarence schools are the best value in WNY. We get Cadillac quality for the cost of a Chevy, and we won’t have our schools hijacked by a phantom group claiming bipartisan “concern” for our students’ educations, while spending tens of thousands of dollars to do them harm. Don’t presume or pretend to be on the side of the schools or the students if you’re not.

Above, you see another slick insert included with everyone’s issue of the Clarence Bee this week. It is a victory lap – gloating over the firing of teachers, over the reduction in programs for our schoolkids; cheering higher class sizes and fewer resources. Applauding a curriculum that provides fewer opportunities for current students. Who died and made our local AFP stooge the queen of the schools? What election did she win to give her the right to dance on top of the rubble she helped create? Look at that flyer – as if the phony bipartisanship wasn’t enough of a lie – she has the chutzpah; the gall; the unmitigated shamelessness to presume that she is on the same side as the taxpayer parents whose kids now have to make do with less than her kids had to. To say this is appalling and classless is an insult to appalling classlessness. 

By improving the quality of the schools, you protect your investment – your tax investment, and your investment in your own home. Great schools make a great community. 

We’re your neighbors. We’re your friends. We pay taxes, too. We’re awake now, and we’re just getting started. 

 

Not Just a Taxpayer

29 May

I’m going to apologize for my lack of posts lately and in the next few weeks. I’m a Clarence resident and parent of two school-age kids, and last week’s school budget defeat has led me to become an active parent-taxpayer in the town.

For a decade, I had thought that the schools in Clarence were sacrosanct, and people would be willing to do whatever it took to keep the schools excellent. I was wrong. Losing that vote was like finding out your spouse was cheating on you the whole time – the town didn’t love the schools like that; it’s not the schools, it’s us. 

Indeed, at a meeting last night in a packed high school auditorium, people did what people always do when there’s nickel-and-diming afoot; they begged for mercy. 

Here you have one of the most cost-effective districts in WNY, and the number two school district. Instead of discussing what it would take to get to number one, we were talking about the teachers, staffers, and programs that would be cut. I don’t know how you cut your way to excellence, and I don’t know how eliminating teachers, raising class sizes, and getting rid of several modified sports and all freshman sports, firing three music teachers, a social worker, a guidance counselor, and several ELA, math, and science teachers is going to get Clarence to #1. 

What we’re going to find out is how people and things cost money. We’re going to find out that cutting and austerity lead to poor quality and a stressed system. 

But we also learned that there are some very passionate taxpayer-parents in town, and they are united and determined to prevent something like the past couple of weeks from ever happening again.  Nothing will be taken for granted, and never again will we be caught unaware. 

The budget revote is June 18th, so my posting here may be light as I concentrate on preserving the quality of my kids’ schools, and help to ensure the continued brightness of their future. Tea party austerity be damned. 

The Morning Grumpy – 5/29/13

29 May

All the news, views, and filtered excellence fit to consume during your morning grumpy. But first, let’s see what’s new with Advice Mallard.

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1. Brad Riter and I sat down with Buffalo Mayoral Candidate Sergio Rodriguez to discuss his background, aspirations, and various parts of his campaign platform. Most of the previous coverage dedicated to Rodriguez has been of the “inside baseball” political variety and not anything substantive, so we took a different tack. I hope you enjoy it.

2.Matt Taibbi continues his excellent reporting on the American economy with a look at how the Federal Reserve is radically experimenting with our financial system while Congress is paralyzed with nonsense.

This whole debt debate really began devolving in earnest into total mindlessness once people like Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn started likening the government spending deficits to family budgets, pushing to “make Congress live under the same rules as families across the country and treat the federal budget like the family budget. Families have to live in their means and so should Congress.” Not paying our government obligations, Coburn said recently – remember, this is a U.S. senator talking – might be a “wonderful experiment.”

Comments like these led to Tea Party protesters descending upon Washington screaming about how not raising the debt ceiling is like giving your kids the bad news that they can’t afford to go to the movies – difficult but necessary, a kind of homespun tough love, except that a global superpower intentionally defaulting on its sovereign debt is actually way closer to an act of apocalyptic suicidal madness than it is to good parenting. (“It would be the financial-market equivalent of that Hieronymus Bosch painting of hell,” said JPMorgan Chase chief U.S. economist Michael Feroli.)

The national debt is totally unlike a family budget for about a gazillion reasons, not the least of which being that families cannot raise money by fiat or deflate the size of their debt unilaterally and that family members die instead of existing infinitely. Comparing your family budget to the sovereign debt of the United States is a little like comparing two kindergartners tossing a paper airplane to the Apollo 11 mission. It’s an automatically bogus argument, which raises the question of why it’s made so often, and not only by Republicans of the Coburn type, whom we expect to be clueless dopes. In fact, the overuse of this loony household analogy just proves that when it comes to debt, people may have ideas, but nobody knows exactly what he or she is talking about.

I can’t believe this is the Congress we’ve elected.

3. Think a complicated password keeps your data and personal information safe from hackers? Wrong. Ars Technica provided a a list of encrypted passwords to some credible hackers and asked them to see if they could crack those passwords. The results weren’t pretty.

The list contained 16,449 passwords converted into hashes using the MD5 cryptographic hash function. Security-conscious websites never store passwords in plaintext. Instead, they work only with these so-called one-way hashes, which are incapable of being mathematically converted back into the letters, numbers, and symbols originally chosen by the user. In the event of a security breach that exposes the password data, an attacker still must painstakingly guess the plaintext for each hash—for instance, they must guess that “5f4dcc3b5aa765d61d8327deb882cf99” and “7c6a180b36896a0a8c02787eeafb0e4c” are the MD5 hashes for “password” and “password1” respectively. (For more details on password hashing, see the earlier Ars feature “Why passwords have never been weaker—and crackers have never been stronger.”)

The Ars password team included a developer of cracking software, a security consultant, and an anonymous cracker. The most thorough of the three cracks was carried out by Jeremi Gosney, a password expert with Stricture Consulting Group. Using a commodity computer with a single AMD Radeon 7970 graphics card, it took him 20 hours to crack 14,734 of the hashes, a 90-percent success rate. Jens Steube, the lead developer behind oclHashcat-plus, achieved impressive results as well. (oclHashcat-plus is the freely available password-cracking software both Anderson and all crackers in this article used.) Steube unscrambled 13,486 hashes (82 percent) in a little more than one hour, using a slightly more powerful machine that contained two AMD Radeon 6990 graphics cards. A third cracker who goes by the moniker radix deciphered 62 percent of the hashes using a computer with a single 7970 card—also in about one hour. And he probably would have cracked more had he not been peppered with questions throughout the exercise.

Passwords are ultimately an elaborate theater of security. At a minimum, you should be changing your passwords every thirty days, refrain from recycling your passwords, and not never daisychain (i.e. use the same password for multiple accounts). You should also use two-factor authentication when possible, but be mindful that if someone really wants to crack your account, they can probably do it if they put their mind to it.

4. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the most expensive fighter jet ever built. Let’s break down the the numbers.

45:  The states over which Lockheed and its subcontractors and suppliers have spread the F-35 work.
133,000: The number of jobs the F-35 currently supports, according to Lockheed Martin.
2012: Year in which full-rate production was set to begin.
2019: Year in which full-rate production is now scheduled.
$233 billion: Estimated total cost in 2001.
$397 billion: Current estimated total cost, according to the Washington Post.
 
That’s one pricey plane.

5. The rise and fall of the charming American man.

Only the self-aware can have charm: It’s bound up with a sensibility that at best approaches wisdom, or at least worldliness, and at worst goes well beyond cynicism. It can’t exist in the undeveloped personality. It’s an attribute foreign to many men because most are, for better and for worse, childlike. These days, it’s far more common among men over 70—probably owing to the era in which they reached maturity rather than to the mere fact of their advanced years. What used to be called good breeding is necessary (but not sufficient) for charm: no one can be charming who doesn’t draw out the overlooked, who doesn’t shift the spotlight onto others—who doesn’t, that is, possess those long-forgotten qualities of politesse and civilité.

Still, charm is hardly selfless. All of these acts can be performed only by one at ease with himself yet also intensely conscious of himself and of his effect on others. And although it’s bound up with considerateness, it really has nothing to do with, and is in fact in some essential ways opposed to, goodness. Another word for the lightness of touch that charm requires in humor, conversation, and all other aspects of social relations is subtlety, which carries both admirable and dangerous connotations. Charm’s requisite sense of irony is also the requisite for social cruelty

Am I charming? No. I should work on that.

Fact Of The Day: Tomato ketchup was popular before fresh tomatoes, which were believed to be poisonous

Quote Of The Day: “Never ask a barber if you need a haircut.” -Warren Buffett

Song Of The Day: “Hooray For Me” – Bad Religion

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An Open Letter to Donn Esmonde

24 May

Dear Mr. Esmonde,

With today’s anti-school piece about Clarence’s difficulties with its school taxes, you’ve hit a new low. Frankly, given that you’re usually a reasonably progressive thinker who may have more than a passing interest in education, it’s appalling.

Did you speak with your anti-tax friends how the school tax rate – even with the 9.8% hike would have been significantly less than it was in 2003? 2005? The rate would have risen to $15.52/$1000.  In 2007 it was $15.86.  In 2003 it was $16.85. Did you know that in the last 4 years, Clarence has lost $13 million in state and federal funding?  No, you didn’t. If you did, you ignored it.  

Did you happen to mention to them that the tax rates in other highly-ranked districts like East Aurora, Williamsville, and Orchard Park are in some cases 2x the ~$15/$1000 it is in Clarence?

Did you mention to them that Clarence has the 2nd best district and is ranked 6th most cost-effective in the region by Business First?  Did you know it’s 93rd out of 98 districts in WNY in per-pupil spending?

Did you mention to your tea party friends or your readers how the district cut 60 full-time staffers since 2011? That the proposed budget that failed would have cut another 24? 

Ever heard of the Triborough Amendment or the Taylor Law? Did you know that the union agreed to a lower salary increase in its most recent contract than they would have received under Taylor? Did you mention to anyone that, even if the teachers and administration contributed 25% or 50% towards their health care, it wouldn’t close this year’s budget hole? 

Did you happen to question whether they knew that state pension costs are completely outside of the control of the local district and the teachers (and their union)?  Did the issue of the pension and the recent recession’s affect on it come up at all? Did you know that pension costs take into account the past five years’ worth of investment income, which includes the crash of 2008-2009? Did you happen to mention that the district had basically played Giambra-type games with the budget in past years, leaving us with a green/red budget type situation now?

Did you happen upon the fact that the so-called “Citizens for Sustainable Schools” is a local front group for Americans for Prosperity?

Why are we comparing what an educator makes to what someone at DuPont makes? In what way are they similar, except for the fact that they are “jobs”?

Did you happen to ask your friends what they think an appropriate salary for a tenured teacher with 20 years’ seniority should be?

Did you happen to speak with anyone who supported the tax hike and could have explained why it was deemed necessary? If so, why wasn’t that included in your piece? Why did you simply digest as fact what you were told by opponents?

Welcome to the tea party.

Alan Bedenko

The Morning Grumpy – 5/24/13

24 May

All the news, views, and filtered excellence fit to consume during your morning grumpy.

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1. As you may know, I am a regular contributor to another local website, Trending Buffalo, where I record podcasts (like this one) twice each week with Brad Riter and Alan Bedenko. The operators of TrendingBuffalo have taken it upon themselves to hand out some awards, but unlike the Artvoice or Buffalo Spree awards, the #Trendees will reward local people and business who use social media to make Buffalo a more interesting place to live. I think it’s a cool idea and if you have the time or interest, I’d like to encourage you to vote. Everyone likes lists and awards, right?

2. Last night, Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy Zellner and the Buffalo zone chairs voted to endorse Mayor Byron Brown as the Democratic candidate in the 2013 Mayoral election.

Democrats Endorse Brown for Mayor by 1east161st

Since being elected as the County Democratic Chairman, Zellner has made continual efforts to repair burned bridges between the ECDC and Mayor Brown, resulting in this endorsement. While party unity is nice (tenuous as it may be), it’s still disappointing that Brown is the presumed winner of the primary. As such, it was a no-brainer for Zellner to endorse the Mayor as a means to improve his bona fides as a unifying presence in the party. I mean, what was he going to do, endorse the alleged sexual harasser for the job? Come on.

Anyhow, Brown has done a solid job of making it appear that there is a lot of progress without actually accomplishing a lot.  He’s a nice and pleasant enough man, but those who pay attention know that Brown is running a secretive administration that fights real transparency at every turn and has been more focused on the centralization of political power than progress.  His Citistat program is a joke, based on garbage data going in with garbage analysis coming out.  Personnel scandals, missteps, podium abuse, economic development corruption, alleged FBI investigations into misuse of HUD monies, and a tendency to assemble task forces (in lieu of taking direct action on issues of import) have been the hallmarks of this administration.  I could go on and on, but let’s just say there’s no there, there.

Brown’s record is one of efforts taking precedence over results, which after three terms of Tony Masiello’s one-two punch of failure and incompetence seems like progress to most residents of Buffalo. Buffalo is at a crossroads where a dynamic leader with big ideas could implement generational change, but instead we get crumb-hoarding and petty political battles.

Let’s cut to the chase, while Byron Brown is the human equivalent of a long nap, unless he gets caught with a dead girl or a live boy in the next three months, he’s going to coast to victory. The announcement of his aforementioned primary opponent was met with an audible yawn in most corners of the city and Brown’s Republican opposition has secured neither the endorsement of his own party nor made any tangible progress in fundraising. So, hooray, Brown has been endorsed for another term.

3. Are we nearing the end of broad-based employment in retail stores?

Throughout the 20th century, American stores were the locus of low-skilled employment. The total retail workforce tripled between 1940 and 2000, and for much of the century, the sector employed more people than construction and health care combined. Even today, the two most common occupations in America, by a wide margin, are retail salesperson and cashier. Last year, 7.6 million people held those jobs—more than the total number of workers in Florida.

Retail still employs one in nine working Americans, and retail jobs have grown since the bottom of the Great Recession. But we might be witnessing the moment when it passes over the mountaintop. Between 1950 and 1990, retail employment grew more than 50 percent faster than the general workforce did. Since 1990, it’s grown 50 percent slower. Retail now employs fewer people than it did in 1999. And those people work significantly fewer hours, too.

If so, what does that mean for the economy?

Standard economic theory suggests that, in a smoothly functioning economy, low-skill jobs really do grow on trees, and are largely fungible—it’s the steady loss of middle-class jobs we should worry about. Retail jobs aren’t going suddenly, cataclysmically extinct; they’re likely to decline slowly.

Yet there is a worse scenario, in which the squeeze in retail work intensifies competition for other low-skill jobs, pushing down wages at the bottom and pushing some people out of the labor force entirely. This possibility should not be dismissed too readily.

Think about what happens to the low-skill labor market in 20 years, where will they go and what will they do?

4. Six facts lost in the IRS scandal nontroversy about the agency “targeting” conservative ideological groups that were among those which poured over $256 million into last year’s elections.

1. Social welfare nonprofits are supposed to have social welfare, and not politics, as their “primary” purpose.

A century ago, Congress created a tax exemption for social welfare nonprofits. The statute defining the groups says they are supposed to be “operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare.” But in 1959, the regulators interpreted the “exclusively” part of the statute to mean groups had to be “primarily” engaged in enhancing social welfare. This later opened the door to political spending.

So what does “primarily” mean?  It’s not clear. The IRS has said it uses a “facts and circumstances” test to say whether a group mostly works to benefit the community or not. In short: If a group walks and talks like a social welfare nonprofit, then it’s a social welfare nonprofit.

This deliberate vagueness has led some groups to say that “primarily” simply means they must spend 51 percent of their money on a social welfare idea — say, on something as vague as “education,” which could also include issue ads criticizing certain politicians. And then, the reasoning goes, a group can spend as much as 49 percent of its expenditures on ads directly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate for office.

Read the whole article before commenting, please.

5. If corporate profits are at an all-time high, why are corporate taxes at a 60-year low?

Business profits are escaping U.S. corporate income taxes in three big ways. First, business is literally moving away from the U.S., as multinational companies have expanded abroad.  Second, large companies are wise to the tricks they can use to move income through foreign subsidiaries that avoid America’s high statutory rate. Third, smaller companies are finding ways to avoid corporate taxes, altogether.

Also, if profits are up and taxes are down, why won’t the “job creators” quit it with their god damned whining already?

Fact Of The Day: “Smound” is a recently discovered perception, created from the convergence of scents and sounds in the brain. It explains why popcorn smells better in movie theater or a song can bring a rush of scent memory.

Quote Of The Day: “Faith: not wanting to know what is true.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Video Of The Day: “Bank” – Kid Snippets

Song Of The Day: “Freddie’s Dead” – Curtis Mayfield

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Open Letter to the Erie County Legislature

23 May

Greetings.

I am a constituent of Mr. Rath’s but am writing to you to inquire about a resolution sponsored by Mssrs. Lorigo, Rath, and Hardwick, which will oppose Governor Cuomo’s proposal to eliminate the “Wilson-Pakula” law, which enables party bosses to endorse other parties’ candidates.

I submit that eliminating Wilson-Pakula is hardly enough to reduce the power of money and patronage in politics, and our entire system of electoral fusion should be abolished, full stop. Electoral fusion and Wilson-Pakula are not used for good; they are used for political advantage and power. The Independence Party is essentially controlled by one marginally intelligent character from Long Island, and exists to enrich and employ him and his close followers. Its name is constructed so as to confuse low-information voters who think they’re registering as unenrolled.

The Conservative Party is controlled locally by Mr. Lorigo’s father, and has shown itself to be exquisitely flexible – when convenient – with respect to the “principles” on which it purports to base its endorsements.

In my town of Clarence, the Conservative endorsement for Supervisor was allegedly withheld not on any ideological grounds, but partly due to personal animus, and partly due to private business interests. That’s the stuff of petty banana republics.

Political decisions and government leadership should be based on merit, not on personal vendettas or misinformation. The system of electoral fusion should be well known to the legislature, as the Independence Party was intimately involved in the so-called “coup” which took place in early 2010 whereby the Republican caucus joined with several breakaway Democrats to create an ersatz “majority”.

That was one of the most embarrassingly tumultuous periods for the Legislature and cheapened it and its mission, such as it is. If the Conservative and Independence Parties want to participate in New York or Erie County politics, Mr. Lorigo and Ms. Dixon have established that members of those parties can run and win.

But if anyone’s goal – at any point – is to establish a cleaner, more honest, and less corrupt political environment, then eliminating Wilson-Pakula is a great first step. Banning fusion altogether is an ultimate goal.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Alan Bedenko

Clarence Voters Teach Students a Lesson

22 May

Perhaps we should retain the services of 20 year old Y counselors to “teach” kids at or near minimum wage with no benefits? Is there a way we could outsource teaching to Bangladesh? Should we eliminate music education, art classes, electives, and advanced placement – fire those teachers? Because all of the gloating I’ve seen Clarence school opponents express in the last 7 hours is packed with thinly concealed animus towards the teachers and their labor union.

The teachers. In this country, at this time, we demonize and defile the educators.

Last night, Clarence voters overwhelmingly rejected the proposed 2013-2014 school budget, and elected two of the so-called “pro-taxpayer” board candidates. A tax that is wholly deductible from federal income taxation is rejected. The curriculum will suffer. Teachers will be put out of work and stop contributing to the local economy. There is no win here, and the school opponents’ gloating is disgusting and unseemly.

The most direct way to personal achievement and success? An education. The key to unlock a better future for WNY? An education. The reason why families have flocked in recent years to Clarence? The schools. A huge source of pride – at least until yesterday – in the town? The schools. First, do no harm.

So why did Clarence families come out in unprecedented numbers expressly to reject a crisis budget that sought to address a fiscal shortfall? I don’t have the answer to that. I’m just really angry and disappointed about it.

I guess I should be amused by the fact that not a single media outlet, except the Bee, picked up on the fact that the tea party astroturf group spent tens of thousands of dollars of outside money to defeat this budget. If AFP was so concerned about the taxpayers, they could have just donated the money to the district or maybe the band boosters to keep the music programs afloat. They could have directed that money to the Advanced Placement programs or electives that will likely be eliminated from the curriculum. But because AFP is about helping people express their frustrations over federal or state taxation at the students of Clarence, it was more important to spend huge sums on slick propaganda.

People complained about the teachers and their union, claiming that they were completely unreasonable and wholly to blame. Nothing could be further from the truth. Look at the product – look at the outcome. We get (got) what we paid for. Our taxes in WNY are high, but Clarence’s are among the lowest. The proposed levy may have been steep, but the result still would have been a lower payment than the checks families cut in 2003. The overall rate is down even as budgets and property values have gone up.

But the parents of Clarence students didn’t have a massive billionaire-backed lobbying and propaganda group to help them agitate in favor of the budget. The teachers’ union didn’t send 3 slick mailers to every home in Clarence and a 4-page full-color insert in the Bee. Big, bad NYSUT has nothing over the AFP’s access to money.

No, the truly grassroots pro-schools effort was barely funded, relying on Facebook, e-mail, leafletting, and word-of-mouth. There were no big 9′ tall signs on any vacant eyesore properties placed in favor of the budget – only “summer portrait of a lovely grandma” was placed, and defaced.

And I suspect that the budget opponents did the defacing in order to earn free media attention and to portray themselves as victims. WGRZ didn’t report on the mailers that came from Long Island, but they did report on the supposed vandalism. WGRZ didn’t do a story on the consequences of this no vote, but did you see what they did to that sign?!

So, now what? Another $2.4 million in budget reductions will need to be added in order to bring the levy within the tax cap. The revised budget will be submitted to the taxpayers who may very well reject it again, in which case a contingency budget with no increase will be imposed. Either way, kids get shafted.

I’m obviously angry because I have a personal stake – I have two children in the system and we moved here for them. But when they leave the Clarence school system, I understand that it’s important to continue to maintain the system’s excellence (perhaps even to improve it) for future generations. Just because I’ve got mine doesn’t mean I will withhold it from you.

My kids’ – your kids’ – education isn’t some hypothetical or theoretical thing to be used as a pawn in a tea party showdown. It’s their only chance, and they should get the best education possible. Clarence just showed me that it doesn’t really much care. In unprecedented droves. Right now, my decision-making is whether I make this a personal cause or if there’s no point and I should just stop caring, move, and give up. The fact that the value of my property likely plummeted yesterday makes that a difficult decision.

But yesterday near the high school at Gunnville and Main Street, hundreds of students excitedly and hopefully held signs, sang songs, and urged passing motorists to vote yes on the budget. The voters didn’t just vote no – they really showed those kids! Because for all the rhetoric about how the teachers make more than doctors and drive to school in gilded Rolls-Royces and furs, the reality is dramatically different, and it wasn’t the teachers who were taught a lesson.

One of my (Republican) friends on Facebook wrote,

It is a shame that voters took all of their National and State tax frustrations out on the local kids in Clarence with this vote. AND shame on you parents with kids that voted against the budget as well as those of you that have already benifitted from this great school system. I know that their was a lot of you. F…ing selfish and stupid! This is the saying… Be careful what you wish for. Wait until you see what happens to the kids and the school district now. I bet you wish you could do it all over again. For $300-$400 (tax deductible) a year was this worth it.

In another thread, a current Clarence HS student writes,

As a student of Clarence High School I almost can’t stand to see the argument that has ripped this town apart. True, I wholeheartedly support the budget because it is my education and I have worked hard recently to try and get people educated on the actual facts of the budget. As an active member in the school’s music department and an avid participant in the electives and AP courses our school offers I am extremely worried about this budget because I know if this budget doesn’t pass these classes will be cut, my high school education will be highly deprived, the prestige of the Clarence community will go down and the number of colleges that will accept me will decrease. I know that it is now to late to change your minds but I’d like to thank those of you who voted yes and ask those of you who voted no what will happen over the next few years as with out a stabilizing budget this year how will taxes and the schools be affected. Staff cuts will run rampant and our schools will be reduced to teaching only the core concepts required by the state with high class sizes and an increasingly unstable budget so taxes will continue to need to increase.
That is all I have to say

Taxpayers? I’m a taxpayer, too. I’m also someone who knows that you get what you pay for. If frugality was the key to everything, we’d all live in a 500 SF apartment and drive a Smart forTwo. Being frugal isn’t the key – getting quality, value, and a good return on investment is what’s important, and Clarence schools excel at that. For one of the lowest tax levies in WNY, we get one of the best educations in WNY. How much of a school tax abatement did the town IDA give to a German niche car company to build a new dealership across the street from its current dealership? How much in school tax abatements has the IDA given in the past, say, 5 years, further burdening residents and – now – punishing students?

My wife told my kids this morning that the vote failed. “Why?” asked my 1st grader. “There won’t be a musical next year. No show choir, no voce” because the teacher will be laid off, said my 7th grader. They’re surprised and sad.

The huge turnout of no votes taught a lesson, alright. They taught the kids a lesson about lies, propaganda, and punishing them for daring to want to learn. They taught them that it’s better to load up on outside money, cloak it in secrecy, and invest in mailers and signs rather than schools.

The Morning Grumpy – 5/22/13

22 May

All the news, views, and filtered excellence fit to consume during your morning grumpy.

water_fountains_out_of_order

1. Proving that massive failure as a public servant is not a deterrent to future employment or success in Buffalo, former Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello was appointed by Governor Cuomo to serve as a board member of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority (colloquially known as the “Peace Bridge Authority”). In the war to dissolve the PBA and turn over control of the bridge to the NFTA (represented in Albany by Masiello’s lobbying firm), the nomination of Masiello to the board is a power move by Cuomo to advance construction progress on the American side of the bridge and exercise more control over the project.

I can only hope the PBA will entrust Masiello with the job of public spokesman for the authority and ask him to record a video discussing the one-two punch of economic progress and vitality that will come from construction of a new bridge plaza.

2. Last week, it was announced that Holy Angels Academy of North Buffalo is closing its doors. Declining enrollment in mid-tier private schools is not a problem unique to Buffalo, it’s happening all across the country. Why?

Private K-12 enrollments are shrinking — by almost 13 percent from 2000 to 2010. Catholic schools are closing right and left.

Meanwhile, charter school enrollments are booming across the land. The charter share of the primary-secondary population is five percent nationally and north of twenty percent in 25 major cities.

What’s really happening here are big structural changes across the industry as the traditional model of private education — at both levels — becomes unaffordable, unnecessary, or both, and as more viable options for students and families present themselves. While unemployment remains high, the marginal advantage of investing thirty or fifty thousand dollars a year in private schooling is diminishing, particularly when those dollars are invested in low-selectivity, lower-status private institutions.

Local institutions like Nichols, Buffalo Seminary, Park, and other schools for the wealthy and/or elite will continue to do well, while less selective private schools will suffer, especially those in urban areas. Charters are eating at the fringes of enrollment numbers and when coupled with continued white flight to the suburbs and fewer people interested in religious education, you have a bad environment for schools like Holy Angels Academy.

3. Apple is a terrible company.

Even as Apple became the nation’s most profitable technology company, it avoided billions in taxes in the United States and around the world through a web of subsidiaries so complex it spanned continents and went beyond anything most experts had ever seen, Congressional investigators disclosed on Monday.

Congressional investigators found that some of Apple’s subsidiaries had no employees and were largely run by top officials from the company’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. But by officially locating them in places like Ireland, Apple was able to, in effect, make them stateless — exempt from taxes, record-keeping laws and the need for the subsidiaries to even file tax returns anywhere in the world.

According to an analysis by Citizens for Tax Justice, Apple has paid almost no income taxes to any country on its $102 billion in offshore holdings. Between 2009 and 2012, Apple avoided paying US taxes on some $74 billion in income, an amount equal to the entire budget of Florida.

Don’t forget how well they treat their workers in China. Enjoy your iPhone.

4. Ta-Nehisi Coates takes President Obama to task for how he speaks to African-Americans. It’s something I’ve never really picked up on, but Coates lays it all bare. It’s made me take another look not just at how the President speaks, but also what informs his policies.

Taking the full measure of the Obama presidency thus far, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this White House has one way of addressing the social ills that afflict black people—and particularly black youth—and another way of addressing everyone else. I would have a hard time imagining the president telling the women of Barnard that “there’s no longer room for any excuses”—as though they were in the business of making them. Barack Obama is, indeed, the president of “all America,” but he also is singularly the scold of “black America.”…No president has ever been better read on the intersection of racism and American history than our current one. I strongly suspect that he would point to policy. As the president of “all America,” Barack Obama inherited that policy. I would not suggest that it is in his power to singlehandedly repair history. But I would say that, in his role as American president, it is wrong for him to handwave at history, to speak as though the government he represents is somehow only partly to blame. Moreover, I would say that to tout your ties to your community when it is convenient, and downplay them when it isn’t, runs counter to any notion of individual responsibility.

These are the cracks in the Obama foundation that might subvert his second term agenda, not ginned-up right-wing nontroversies.

5. Why does the IRS regulate political groups? The Sunlight Foundation explains the hows and whys of political campaign regulation with a simple and clean infographic and story.

The controversy over the Internal Revenue Service’s handling of applications for non-profit status from Tea Party groups has put a spotlight on a subject with which we at the Sunlight Foundation Reporting Group are all too painfully familiar: The migraine-producing complexity of the nation’s campaign finance system. To shed some light on the ongoing debate, we’ve decided to share what we know.

It’s a tangled web, but to understand the IRS nontroversy (which is simply a way for Republicans to further weaken the IRS), you need to understand this first.

6. Why French children don’t have ADHD. Is the disease a construct of American medicine?

In the United States, at least 9% of school-aged children have been diagnosed with ADHD, and are taking pharmaceutical medications. In France, the percentage of kids diagnosed and medicated for ADHD is less than .5%.

French child psychiatrists view ADHD as a medical condition that has psycho-social and situational causes. Instead of treating children’s focusing and behavioral problems with drugs, French doctors prefer to look for the underlying issue that is causing the child distress—not in the child’s brain but in the child’s social context. They then choose to treat the underlying social context problem with psychotherapy or family counseling. This is a very different way of seeing things from the American tendency to attribute all symptoms to a biological dysfunction such as a chemical imbalance in the child’s brain.

I’m not dismissing how American psychiatrists have chosen to treat ADHD, I don’t yet know enough about the subject (nor do I think I will anytime soon). However, I’m interested in learning more about the issue and would appreciate any of you sending along links on the matter.

Fact Of The Day: An estimated 211 new pornographic films are made every week in the United States

Quote Of The Day: “Your past is just a story. And once you realize this, it has no power over you.” – Chuck Palahniuk

Video Of The Day: If movies were written and voiced by kids, but acted by parents, you’d have “Kid Snippets”

Song Of The Day: “Loving Cup” – The Rolling Stones

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School Budget & Board Elections: Vote Today

21 May

Today, communities across New York State will be holding their school tax budget referenda and, in some cases, school board elections. Turnout for these votes is always quite low, yet it’s one of the very few times you have direct control over the taxes you pay – in this case, school taxes assessed against the value of your home.

I live in Clarence, where there’s a battle over a proposed 9.8% rise in school taxes. The proposal rolls right past Cuomo’s property tax cap and needs a 60% supermajority to succeed. 

When we moved to western New York in 2001, we chose to live in Clarence for one sole reason – the excellence of its schools. We have grown to love the town and our neighbors, many of whom also made the move to Clarence because of the school system. It is not hyperbole to suggest that the schools are the town’s very foundation, and if you do harm to them, you harm the entire community. 

Over the past 10 years, the school tax rate has decreased while personnel and non-mandated programs have been cut. Because past budgets were only balanced thanks to use of now-depleted savings, a one-time budget in excess of the cap is necessary to maintain the school curriculum. 

The forces opposed to the school budget are vocal and well-funded. One effort in particular that anyone with a Clarence mailbox knows about has been carefully created and funded from outside the area. Koch Industries’ anti-tax fake grassroots conservative activist group “Americans for Progress” has developed the mail pieces and websites urging a “no” vote and manipulating the data to mislead residents about what’s going on. I, for one, don’t take election of advice from people who proudly, and without irony, place massive election signs on derelict eyesore properties in the town

You can read about the AFP mailers here and here. You can read the reasons to vote YES on the Clarence budget here