Monday, August 31, 2009

General McChrystal: Afghan Efforts 'Not Working'

August 31, 2009, 4:00 a.m.

For a better written, but otherwise almost identical analysis to my own, though I suffer no illusion that George Will reads this blog, see the next day's George Will, "Time to Get Out of Afghanistan," Washington Post, September 1, 2009.

BBC Has General Stanley McChrystal Report
(brought to you by*)

Although neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post seems to have anything online about The McChrystal Report as I write this, the BBC -- which remains in my judgment the world's single best news organization -- does. General Stanley McChrystal, our top military commander for Afghanistan, has been charged with reponsibility for preparing a report for his superiors -- up to and including the Commander in Chief, President Barack Obama -- regarding how things are going over there.

It reminds me of a similar (though much less public, significant and influential) assignment I was once given by another president, President Lyndon Johnson, regarding our efforts in Viet Nam and southeast Asia generally. My conclusion? "Mr. President, you can't play basketball on a football field."

What did I mean by that?

I recalled Iowa City during World War II, and the "Navy Pre-Flight Training School" in our neighborhood, under the command of Captain Hanrahan. I and my friends were only in grade school at the time, but he was always willing to give a little time to the operation's mascots. This included pointing out to us, on the map of Europe on the wall of his office (in the building we now call "South Quad"), how the "front line" was moving across Europe.

For in Viet Nam -- as in Iraq, and now Afghanistan -- there was no "front line." Territory secured one day and lost the next might or might not be repeatedly captured and lost.

Nor was that the only reason why it was very difficult to conduct a "war."

Whenever an economically advanced and militarily powerful nation tries to conduct a "war" in a less powerful country, regardless of how benevolent the military power's motives may be, a substantial portion of the local population will look upon the operation as only the latest in a centuries-long history of invaders and occupiers.

Just as many Americans would organize to fight off invaders and occupiers -- as we did, after all, in the Revolutionary War that marked our nation's beginning -- so do those in the countries we attempt to control with our military.

In science, the mere fact that a scientific experiment is being conducted may impact on what it is that is being observed. Similarly, however counter intuitive it may seem, it the more troops we put in a country, and the longer they are there, the greater is the local hostility to their presence and the more locals who are motivated to participate in the resistance. The resulting chaos may even ignite and exacerbate, rather than reduce, internal strife and fighting among local groups formerly existing under some form of truce.

More often than not, it's very difficult to know who "the enemy" is in such situations. We are identifiable by our uniforms. They are not. They are embedded in the civilian population. They may be part-time fighters with other jobs to which they devote more or less time on any given day. Some may actually be on our payroll.

One of the consequences is that in order to kill them we end up with enormous numbers of dead civilians -- sometimes school children, or those attending weddings or funerals -- whom we euphemistically refer to with the sanitized expression, "collateral damage." Needless to say, such deaths are extremely counterproductive in our effort to "win hearts and minds."

The whole operation is significantly handicapped, moreover, by the fact that those we send overseas, and those who send them there, often through no fault of their own, know very little about the local country and people. Often as not, we cannot speak their language. We don't know their history and religion, their literature and culture, their legitimate and criminal economic activities, their tribal and family ties, their social power structure (we certainly don't even know the names of, let alone have longstanding personal relationships with, local leaders), the internal territorial or religious groups' hostilities, what they do and do not consider appropriate behavior. Even the territory -- deserts and mountainous areas -- may be alien to our troops.

Finally, all of this takes place in an area that is significantly unlike anything we are used to as a "country" based on our American experience. Afghanistan, for example, with its poverty and lack of an educated population, nonexistent to inadequate systems of roads and communication networks, a poppy-based drug economy, with even the capital, Kabul, under attack, and the rest of the country essentially divided into areas under the dictatorial, all-powerful control of individual war lords, is not a "nation" in the sense we use that word.

See generally, Nicholas Johnson, "Ten Questions for Bush Before War," Daily Iowan, February 4, 2008, p. A6.

As President Obama is discovering, even the president of the United States is far from a powerful single leader of America insofar as the very independent members of the Senate and House are concerned, or the lobbyists and major campaign contributors who fund them. In Afghanistan it's much worse. "Our man in Kabul," Afghan President Hamid Karzai, has to make deals with the drug lords in Afghanistan just as Obama needs to make deals with the pharmaceutical industry in the U.S. Karzai can't dictate to the regional war lords of his country any more than Obama can dictate to the senators and governors here.

Indeed, there's a growing disenchantment in Washington with Karzai. And it's not helped with the mounting evidence of outrageous and significant fraud in the recent election for which the ballots are still being counted, and his ties to the drug business. But without Karzai, whom do we turn to as a powerful Afghanistan "leader"?

This is the environment into which the U.S., and the coalition, have sent some 100,000 troops -- and may be sending more.

But with what "mission"? Why are we there? How are our national interests involved -- to such a degree that rational prioritization dictates continuing to spend in excess of a trillion dollars there (Afghanistan and Iraq) rather than here? How would we know if we'd ever been "successful"? What is our ultimate exit strategy? Why will Afghanistan be better off -- by any standard -- years after we've left than it was before we arrived? Why will we be any safer from "terrorism" -- since there are plenty of ungoverned "nations" where the Al Qaeda can hole up and train warriors even if we could run them and the Taliban out of Afghanistan, which it appears we cannot?

Moreover, even if we had a metric for measuring our "success," which we don't, why are we focused on Afghanistan? It's kind of like our response to 9/11 initially -- Saudi Arabia was the source of those who flew the planes into the Twin Towers, and the money that funded their operation. So what did we do? We bombed Afghanistan and then invaded Iraq, a country whose leaders and people apparently had virtually nothing to do with the operation and were actually hostile to Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda and the Taliban seem to be primarily located in and working out of Pakistan. So where are we engaging them? In Afghanistan.

So it is that we cannot be surprised with what early leaks indicate may be coming to us from General McChrystal, in these excerpts from the BBC's report:
A report by the top US general in Afghanistan is expected to admit the current strategy is not working, the BBC understands.

General Stanley McChrystal will liken the US military to a bull charging at a matador [the Taliban] - slightly weakened with each "cut" it receives.

His review is also expected to say that protecting the Afghan people against the Taliban must be the top priority. . . .

Crisis of confidence

BBC North America editor Mark Mardell says General McChrystal's bullfighting metaphor is striking because it is not the usual way that US commanders talk about the country's armed forces.

The general's blunt assessment will also say that the Afghan people are undergoing a crisis of confidence because the war against the Taliban has not made their lives better, our correspondent says.

General McChrystal says the aim should be for Afghan forces to take the lead but their army will not be ready to do that for three years and it will take much longer for the police.

And he will warn that villages have to be taken from the Taliban and held, not merely taken.

General McChrystal also wants more engagement with the Taliban fighters and he believes that 60% of the problem would go away if they could be found jobs.
"US Afghan Strategy 'Not Working,'" BBC News, 31 August 2009 09:13 UK.

It looks like the Report will end up being further support for my only half joking proposal that "what we need is more military control of the civilians" (a take off on the basic American constitutional principle of "civilian control of the military").

It is, after all, the elected officials and talk show hosts who suggest that we should "Nuke 'em!" or "Let's go kick some butt!" or whose contribution to military strategy such vacuous lines as "These colors don't run!"

The top thinkers in the military, many of whom do make their way to the top of their service, or the Joint Chiefs' staff, are well educated, bright, analytical and rational.

When left to their own independent judgment and opinions they are the ones likely to ask questions like those I outlined above. What, exactly, is it you are trying to do in this country? How are our national interests involved? In what ways do you think a military presence could be helpful in reaching that goal (as distinguished from, e.g., Peace Corps presence and building infrastructure; cultural exchanges; or bringing their best students to our universities)? How would you describe that military mission? With what metrics would you measure our military's progress? How many troops will it take to accomplish that mission? How long will it take? What is your basis for thinking the American people, and their elected representatives, will support the cost in human life and taxes over that time? (Support for the Afghan war has now dropped below 50%.) What support is there in the international community for this action? Does that support include financial support and troops? Once in, how do we get out; that is, what is our "exit strategy"? On the assumption the military mission produces the outcome desired, why is it reasonable to assume that progress will be sustained after we leave?

Note what General McChrystal is said to be talking about. Our military efforts "have not made their lives better;" security must be provided by locals "but their army will not be ready to do that for three years and it will take much longer for the police;" and a jobs program would be more effective than continuing to shoot Afghans ("60% of the problem would go away if they could be found jobs"). [See, e.g., Pamela Constable, "Many Women Stayed Away From the Polls In Afghanistan; Fear, Tradition, Apathy Reversed Hopeful Trend," Washington Post, August 31, 2009 ("Five years ago, with the country at peace, traditional taboos easing and Western donors pushing for women to participate in democracy, millions of Afghan women eagerly registered and then voted for a presidential candidate. . . . But on Aug. 20 [, 2009], when Afghans again went to the polls to choose a president, . . . a combination of fear, tradition, apathy and poor planning conspired to deprive many Afghan women of rights they had only recently begun to exercise").]

To the extent he's talking about conventional military issues at all, he comments (as I do above) that "villages have to be taken from the Taliban and held, not merely taken." And that function would require, of course, multiples of the numbers of troops anyone has so far proposed. (It's reminiscent of Jerry Seinfeld's routine at the car rental counter: "You know how to take the reservation, you just don't know how to hold the reservation." See video, embedded in Nicholas Johnson, "Gannett Shoots Straight -- Into Foot," May 3, 2009.)

It remains to be seen what's contained in the full report, if it is to be made public. But from what's been leaked so far it looks like it is going to provide the kind of candor that is needed and far more likely to come from the best and the brightest among the military in Afghanistan than from the civilians in Washington.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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Friday, August 28, 2009

School Boundaries Consultant Folly

August 28, 2009, 7:20 a.m.

For other, related blog entries, see:

Nicholas Johnson, "School Board Governance: First Things First; School Board Forum Producers Charis-Carlson and Yates Create Hit, But Where Was Candidates' Awareness of "Job One": Their Governance Model?" September 4, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "IC School Board Needs Fresh Thinking; Swisher Starting Dialogue,"

Nicholas Johnson, "School Boundaries Consultant Folly; Tough Boundary Questions Are for Board, Not Consultants or Superintendent, Plus: What Consultant Could Do," August 28, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "School Board Members' Advice; So You Want to be a School Board Member," August 19, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "UI VPs and ICCSD Consultants; Concerns About Consultants and Vice Presidents," August 14, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "Cluster Schools: Potential for IC District?" June 3, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "School Boundaries; Tonight's Schools Meeting and the more to come,"
March 30, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, " Demolition Disaster; Come Let Us Reason Together," March 10, 2009 (contains links to additional sources);

Nicholas Johnson," Roosevelt: Valuing Our Schools; Process and Substance in School Facilities Decisionmaking," March 9, 2009 (contains "Earlier, Related Writing" section with links to seven additional sources).
Tough Boundary Questions Are for Board
Not Consultants or Superintendent
Plus: What Consultant Could Do

(brought to you by*)

The Press-Citizen reported Wednesday (August 26) that it looks like the School Board's hiring of a boundaries consultant is a done deal. Rob Daniel, "School district closer to hiring consultant; Board members say they generally support idea," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 26, 2009, p. A1.

The prospect of a consultant being involved in, as Daniel describes it, the "move toward a third comprehensive high school and [the project to] re-align school boundaries district wide," raises a number of possibilities, questions and concerns.

September 8th??!! You've got to be kidding! The story concludes, "[Superintendent Lane] Plugge said he will bring back a 'plan of work' with RSP [the consultant] along with probable costs for the consultants' services to the board at its next meeting on Sept. 8."

In case you haven't yet made a note of it, September 8th is the day when a minimum of two and possibly three new board members will be elected to this seven-person board -- nearly one-half of the membership. (Don't forget to vote.)

Buildings, boundaries -- and the hiring of consultants -- are all highly charged, controversial issues. With the results of the School Board election only hours after the meeting, why on earth would an outgoing board want to decide (or even be briefed on) these issues without the newly elected board members present and participating? It's not as if postponing this meeting would be holding off on a major decision for months, to the detriment of the District. We're talking minutes or hours here.

Tough Boundary Questions Are for Board -- before hiring consultant. There are a number of tough, basic policy issues that simply must be resolved by the School Board and cannot be delegated out to a "consultant" -- or the Superintendent for that matter.

(1) Do we want to continue the piecemeal approach to elementary school (and high school) boundaries, evaluating and redrawing them one school at a time, or do we want to undertake a District wide reevaluation and boundary line redrawing exercise?

What are the Board's goals, and parameters, with regard to:

(2) The disparity in the "free and reduced lunch" populations between elementary schools? Do we, does the Board, want boundaries that result in all schools being within 5 percentage points of each other on this measure? 10 percent? Equal? Or does the Board desire (or is it fearful of challenging) the perpetuation of those disparities -- capitulating to those who like things just the way they are (or who would prefer they be even more unequal)?

(3) The disparity in the percentage of optimum occupancy for each elementary? As with "free and reduced," how much disparity is acceptable in the percentages on this measure? Or is the Board even willing to continue to build new schools rather than more efficiently utilize those that now have empty classrooms?

(4) The disparities in "class size" in terms of, for example, the number of third graders in each third grade classroom across the District? (There are approaches to boundaries that can make all schools' class sizes roughly equal.)

(5) Are we, is the Board, willing to consider any changes in the general configuration of our elementary and junior high schools, changes that would have an impact upon, among other things, boundaries (e.g., K-3, 4-6, 6-8 buildings; magnet schools)?

(6) "Best practices" and most data indicate that, however good our high schools are today (and all three are), they could be even better if we were to follow the advice that no high school should exceed a 600 to 800 enrollment. (Above that, there is a marked increase in drop-outs and absenteeism, bullying and violence, alcohol and drug abuse, graffiti and vandalism, and teen pregnancy. There's also some evidence of a decline in academic performance, though that data is less definitive.) Can we afford to have the best? Can we afford not to? Are we willing to pay for it? The answers to this one obviously affects the discussion and decisions surrounding the "third conventional high school," budgets -- and the transition to the future boundaries for whatever high schools we may have.

(7) Do we want the Board and Administration to have the flexibility of zones within which, over time, new students could be assigned to more than just one school, as necessary to meet the "goals and parameters" noted above?

(8) More generally, do we want to create a process and formula that indicate how boundaries will be modified in the future -- thereby avoiding the need to re-invent the wheel every few years -- or just get the current challenge and controversy behind us as quickly as possible?

Could a "consultant" from Olathe, Kansas, address and give us their opinion about how we should respond to these choices? Of course; but so could anyone stopped at random on any city street in America.

The point is, the above issues are matters of judgment for the people of Iowa City, not Olathe; they are political questions; questions that need to be answered by the stakeholders of the Iowa City Community School District -- through the members of the School Board that they have elected, and will elect on September 8th (as informed by the input of those stakeholders who have spoken at Board meetings and otherwise communicated with Board members).

What a consultant could do. Once these issues have been addressed and resolved by the Board, then and only then there may well remain specialized, technical tasks for which the Superintendent does not have staff expertise available. For example, there's the matter of taking the Board's resolution of its preferred parameters, calculating the amount and location of student population growth over time, and applying the Board's parameters to those numbers. I would think we'd have someone on staff who could perform that function; but if not, that clerical task could be outsourced without having transferred major policy decisions along with it.

The 'What-If' Machine. We have fewer than 12,000 students in the District. That is clearly a relatively small number of entries for a computer. In fact, anyone with Microsoft Office 2007 has the programs to handle that number of entries in either a database ("Access") or spreadsheet ("Excel"). Although mapping software exists, I don't have access to it on my laptop (so far as I know -- one's always discovering new features) -- aside from "Mapquest," Google Earth, and Bing.

So I'm assuming it would not be that big a challenge, in 2009, to come up with the mapping program I describe below.

[Thirty years ago, as one of the presidential assistants to President Jimmy Carter charged with organizing and operating the 1979 White House Conference on Libraries and Information Services, my son Gregory and I witnessed a display of a similar computer program with capabilities far beyond what I'm about to describe. That's why I'm simply assuming that, given the rate of increases in computer capabilities, and decreases in their costs per transaction, what I'm proposing is either already in existence or could be cheaply created.]

What I'd like to see is a combination database and mapping program that would enable anyone in the community -- not just ICCSD administrators and staff -- to engage in "What If" boundary-drawing exercises that would display the resulting boundary lines when driven by alternative inputs regarding such things as elementary schools' percentage occupancy, allocation of free-and-reduced-lunch students, students' distance from schools, and other variables.

Presumably the District (1) already has the necessary raw data to do this (students' names, date of birth, street address, current school) and (2) the ability to protect students' privacy (e.g., use of numbers rather than names, year of birth instead of month-day-year, numbered blocks instead of street addresses).

What if the only metric was that every child is assigned to the closest school? Where would those boundaries be?

What if all schools had free-and-reduced-lunch numbers within 10 percentage points of each other, but students were otherwise assigned to the closest school? What would the boundaries look like?

What if all elementary schools were at the same percentage of their optimum occupancy? How would those boundary lines change?

Such questions and more could be put to such a program and the results quickly revealed. It would ultimately save enormous amounts of time and money for everyone interested in these issues -- including the taxpayers who will end up paying for the consultant. And it would make for much more meaningful, and hopefully civil, participation by the District's stakeholders in the process -- including much more helpful, and fact-based, input from the community to the Board.

If that's what the Board wants the consultant (or some University or other local software experts) to do I'm all for it. We really need a computer mapping program like that -- available to all.

Otherwise, I think the Board needs to wait for the outcome of the school board election September 8th, and then get on with what it is we elect them to do: to bravely, intelligently, and with the aid of their own thorough research, make those tough decisions.

Here are some additional excerpts from Daniel's story (linked at the top of this blog entry), with my comments interspersed in italics:

The school board heard from representatives of RSP Associates of Olathe, Kan., at its meeting Tuesday night about what the consultants can do to help district officials solve the enrollment and boundary issues. The consultants were brought in by Superintendent Lane Plugge to help determine how to build the new high school in the North Liberty area while the district wrestles with crowding at West High and budget woes.
"Help district officials solve the enrollment and boundary issues" sounds, to me, more like total capitulation to, or delegation of decision making to, a "consultant" than "consultation."

And what on earth does "help determine how to build the new high school" mean? Don't we know how to build a high school? What we often don't do is to thoroughly research and think through all the things we'd like to do inside that high school, and what we want the outcomes to be, and why, and how those decisions might impact the physical structure. A consultant might emphasize the importance of that step. But a consultant can't make those decisions for the Board either. After that, it's a matter of getting some more community input, selecting and working with the architect, and then selecting and working with a contractor or contractors and providing appropriate oversight. That's "how to build a new high school."
Mark Porter, education planner with RSP, said the group has a 97 percent accuracy rate in making enrollment projections over two years. He said the consultants have helped with numerous school districts in settling boundary and enrollment projection issues including helping the Ankeny School District with its plans to build a second high school last year. He said the consultants could help the district get the correct information to make a good decision on whether to build the third comprehensive high school.

"You want this information to be right the first time," Porter said. "You have to have correct data."

RSP, according to principal planner Robert Schwarz, can help the district figure out its enrollment projections using enrollment and development trends, figure migration patterns in and out of the district, and help district officials develop a plan that can be presented for approval by the school board. He said he hopes to spend the fall collecting and analyzing enrollment, census, construction and development data before presenting the group's finding and recommendation in October. The district then can form a committee of parents, teachers and school board members to formulate a plan through meetings and public forums before presenting a plan to the school board for approval in the spring.

Schwarz said RSP could help do this without being biased toward one end or another.

"We are an unbiased third party," he said. "We're going to be looking at real world data that exists in your community." . . .
The reference to "enrollment projections" and the suggestion that the consultant "can help the district figure out its enrollment projections using enrollment and development trends, figure migration patterns in and out of the district" sounds like what I called, above, "specialized, technical tasks" that follow from, rather than precede, determine or supplant, fundamental Board policy decisions. So, although we ought to be able to do that ourselves -- at least with resources inside Iowa City if not within the ICCSD staff, without having to go to Olathe, Kansas -- I'm relatively untroubled with a consultant performing that task.

On the other hand, as the sentence continues, it becomes more problematical: "and help district officials develop a plan that can be presented for approval by the school board." What this sounds like, at least superficially, is that (1) the Board has delegated the boundary policy and third conventional high school decisions to the Superintendent, (2) the Superintendent has handed them off to a consultant, following which (3) the Superintendent will perform the transmission belt function of passing along this "Board policy" created by a consultant to the Board, which will then (4) put its imprimatur on the value judgment of these Olathe residents.
I've never wished more fervently to be wrong. But I just call 'em as I see 'em, and from where I now sit this looks to me like a foul ball.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009


August 26, 2009, 4:30 a.m.

Senator Edward Moore "Ted" Kennedy
February 22, 1932 – August 25, 2009

(brought to you by*)

I have just heard the Kennedy family's announcement that Senator Kennedy died late last night, August 25, 2009.

If you are too young to know the details of his life, they will probably be brought to you at some time during the next week or so. There is no need for me to repeat them here. But I would like to add my own personal comment.

For his tragic death is, for me, a personal as well as a national, political and public policy loss.

It's not like we lived next door to each other, or lunched every day. But our lives did intersect in a variety of ways over the years.

We both came to Washington in 1963. He as a newly-elected U.S. Senator, just barely old enough to meet the Constitutional standard, on the crest of a dramatic campaign victory in a race the pundits swore he would lose. I as a new associate at Covington & Burling, following a Supreme Court clerkship with Justice Hugo Black and a professorship at the University of California Law School (Boalt Hall).

By 1964 I held my first presidential appointment from President Lyndon Johnson, as U.S. Maritime Administrator -- a position to which Ted's father, Joseph P. Kennedy, was appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt as the first in that position.

Because of my father's friendship with Carroll Rosenbloom, owner of the Baltimore Colts and a very close family friend of Joseph Kennedy, Dad was brought in after Kennedy's stroke to help with his speech.

Carroll gave my wife and me a standing invitation to the owner's box whenever the Colts were playing in Baltimore (as well as occasionally flying Dad to games elsewhere), and I would sometimes run into Ted there.

On one occasion my wife and I were driving to Florida for a brief vacation. Dad knew that I was going in part to recover from a bout of pneumonia, was concerned about how I was doing, but in that pre-cell-phone age didn't know how to contact me. For some reason he called Carroll, thinking we might have told him our destination, and found him, with Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, at the Kennedy Palm Beach home Joseph Kennedy had bought in 1933. "No," Carroll said, he didn't know where we were, but he'd ask Bobby if there was anything he could do. The story told me -- as unbelievable as it sounds -- was that the Attorney General then put the FBI (apparently not overworked that day) on the task of contacting the motels at which we might have been staying. Since we hadn't yet arrived and checked in anywhere, we eluded the FBI as well. But I always appreciated this effort by Bobby, who also put me in one of his speeches on one occasion.

In 1967 Ted Kennedy and I were among the "Ten Outstanding Young Americans" selected by the Jaycees for that distinction and shared the related events in Minneapolis with our wives and Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

One of the reasons I chose the Unitarian church as a child was because, after visiting almost all the churches in Iowa City, I discovered that it was the only one that encouraged one's exposure to a variety of religions. Some, on the other hand, would treat such behavior as grounds for excommunication. In the 1970s I was exploring the Catholic church, and found myself at Washington's Holy Trinity, staffed by Jesuits from Georgetown University -- most especially the charismatic Father Jim English. Well into that Catholic immersion I discovered it was also Senator Kennedy's church.

Because I also knew members of his staff and their families other stories have come to me which will simply stay with me.

We continued to run into each other at various events as one does in Washington, and occasionally talked about media issues that challenged his political aspirations. After returning to Iowa in 1980 most of my contact, aside from correspondence, was when he was in the state campaigning.

So, although we were scarcely next door neighbors or poker-playing buddies, it was a personal relationship of sorts. As a result of which his death is a poignant personal matter for me, as well as an enormous political and public policy loss for America, and I hope you will forgive me for sharing these memories in this way this morning.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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Friday, August 21, 2009

Choosing a College and Rankings

August 25, 2009, 8:15 a.m.

Random Thoughts on College Rankings
(brought to you by*)

The University of Iowa News Service recently trumpeted "UI 29th Best U.S. Public National University." The news release began:
The University of Iowa is the 29th best public national university in the country, according to the latest rankings published by the magazine U.S.News & World Report. The ranking places the UI in a tie with Indiana University-Bloomington, Michigan State University, University of California-Santa Cruz and Virginia Tech University.

The UI's placement in the 2010 edition of the magazine's influential "The Top 50 Public National Universities" compares to a ranking of 26th in the 2009 edition, 24th in 2008 and 25th in 2007. The UI currently is ranked 71st in the "Best National Universities" category, which contains 262 U.S. universities ( 164 public and 98 private ).

In addition, the UI once again is among 22 institutions -- including Harvard and Yale universities -- appearing in the 2010 U.S.News listing titled "Writing In The Disciplines," which recognizes institutions that "typically make writing a priority at all levels of instruction and across the curriculum." Colleges in the listing are unranked and appear in alphabetical order. . . .
How significant are these numbers and rankings?

Not very.

Adjectives aren't very useful -- saying Iowa is a "good," "great," "first class" or a "world class" university doesn't tell us much.

From a student's perspective the criteria for selecting the place to acquire a college education are few. Since no professor can "teach" you anything -- whatever you learn you're going to have to teach yourself -- are the faculty and curriculum sufficiently adequate for you to be able to provide yourself a good liberal arts education? Do the tuition and other costs, and available grants and loans, tip the benefit-cost balance in favor of the benefits? Is the campus and community safe? Is the town small enough that it's easy to get around and not overloaded with distractions?

(Of course, if a student just wants to binge drink and party, and parents are willing to pay for that "college education," while Iowa always ranks high as a "party school," essentially any school will do and they might as well go for the very lowest tuition.)

By these standards, or any others you might want to add or substitute, it seems to me that the University of Iowa is as adequate as any college or university in the world as a place for any serious student who's willing to put in the effort, find the challenging professors, and take the tough courses, to teach him or herself the fundamentals of what we call a liberal arts education.

So what are we to make of these rankings?

Over a year ago I wrote a blog entry about the unreliability of the U.S. News law school rankings. "Random Thoughts on Law School Rankings," April 29, 2008. Sixteen months later it consistently remains one of the most popular of the near-700 entries on this blog.

Now, it turns out, the college and university rankings are, if anything, even worse.

In discussing law school rankings I made, and discussed, a list of the reasons why those selecting a law school risk overemphasizing their significance. A couple of those reasons were: "The weight accorded various factors makes a dramatic difference in ranking" and "The rankings have distorted law schools' decisions, and led to 'gaming' the system -- and therefore unreliable and misleading results."

[If you're curious but don't want to click on the link above to the entire entry, I concluded: "Bottom line: chill. Law school rankings don't tell you much, and can be and are manipulated. Rankings are of very little significance in terms of the substantive quality of the legal education you'll get, especially because you're going to have to teach yourself the law anyway. Superficially, rankings in the top half-dozen may make some difference -- if you're set on getting into the places where they can help open doors -- but even by that standard you may be better off with a higher class rank from a lower ranked school than a much lower class rank from a higher ranked school. And between schools ranked, say, 15th to 30th, there really isn't much basis for choosing one school over another. Good luck -- and don't forget to apply at Iowa!"]

When it comes to colleges and universities, it turns out my observation that "The weight accorded various factors makes a dramatic difference in ranking" is so understated as to be hilarious. (Many of the other reasons I cited regarding law schools also seem applicable to the colleges.)

Read these excerpts from what AP reporter Justin Pope discovered when he compared the rankings of U.S. News with those of Forbes. Justin Pope, "Harvard, Princeton top college rankings again," Associated Press/Yahoo! News, August 19, 2009.

Perennial contenders Harvard and Princeton share the top spot in the latest edition of the influential U.S. News & World Report university rankings. Williams heads the list of liberal arts colleges while Dartmouth wins a new category ranking commitment to undergraduate teaching. . . .

The ranking formula takes account of factors such as SAT scores, peer reputation, selectivity and alumni giving. . . .

[Many] consider the practice harmful for both students and colleges.

Critics argue rankings pressure colleges to focus on boosting their scores in various categories, instead of improving their teaching. . . .

There are also charges of gaming the system. . . .

U.S. News is the most closely watched ranking of undergraduate programs, but it has a growing number of imitators — with very different ideas about what makes a top college.

Rankings recently published by, for instance, had the U.S. Military Academy at West Point ranked first, followed by Princeton and Cal Tech. But further down the list the results were wildly different, thanks to a methodology that places greater emphasis on graduates' debt load and employability (and also, controversially, uses the not-exactly-scientific web site So while Dartmouth is the No. 11 university in U.S. News, ranks it No. 98 in a combined category of colleges and universities. Meanwhile, Forbes puts tiny Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia 18 spots ahead of the Ivy League's Brown University.

Nor do the top U.S. News universities fare well on a new report card by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an academic group whose causes include stronger general education requirements in traditional subjects like history, literature and the hard sciences.

In a report card released Wednesday looking at 100 leading colleges, ACTA gave an "F" to nine of the U.S. News top 20 national universities, while awarding "A"s to five schools: West Point, Texas A&M, University of Texas, University of Arkansas and City University of New York-Brooklyn College.

ACTA said it found almost 90 percent of the leading schools fail to require a survey course in American government or history. Just two . . . require economics. Meanwhile, the report card not-so-gently mocks courses . . . like Wesleyan University's "Physics for Future Presidents" and Stanford's ". . . Renaissance of a Hawaiian Musical Tradition."

The average cost for the five schools that require six core subjects and thus received an A: $5,400. The average cost for those receiving an "F" for no such requirements: $37,700.
In short, forget the rankings. Iowa is as good as any school -- if a student is willing to approach college education as the serious and rewarding thing it is: an asset they will be drawing upon, and supported by, for the remainder of their life. If they're not self-motivated and disciplined, forget it; they won't do a very good job of teaching themselves wherever they may be.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

# # #

Banks As Robbers: The $38 Billion Heist

August 21, 2009, 6:40 a.m.

How Banks Profit From Robbing Customers
(brought to you by*)

After years of watching bank robbers take their money, banks are turning the tables and now making billions by robbing their customers.

And, so far, the local papers are not following up on this story for their readers.

"If You Can't Trust Your Banker . . ."

[Credit: "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres," Maverick, 2nd Season, 1958. The popular early television series, Maverick, "starring James Garner and Jack Kelly, remains the most famous and widely discussed episode of the Western comedy television series Maverick. Written by Roy Huggins and Douglas Heyes and directed by Leslie H. Martinson, this 1958 second season episode depicts gambler Bret Maverick (James Garner) being swindled by a crooked banker (John Dehner) after depositing the proceeds from a late-night poker game, then recruiting his brother Bart Maverick (Jack Kelly) to mount an elaborate sting operation to recover the money." It's also the source of two oft-quoted lines: "If you can't trust your banker, whom can you trust?" and "I'm working on it." See, "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres,"]

As Woodie Guthrie put it in the lyrics to "Pretty Boy Floyd":
As through this life you travel, you meet some funny men
Some rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen
And although this blog entry doesn't address the outrage of foreclosures against the banks' victims in this time of economic hardship, Guthrie's next two lines are also telling:
As through this life you ramble, as through this life you roam
You'll never see an outlaw take a family from their home
I'm indebted this morning to Stephen Phillips for bringing yet another Karl Denninger essay to my attention 10 days ago. Karl Denninger, "Bribed Regulators: Another Example," Market-Ticker, August 10, 2009.

The Financial Times made the basic story available on August 9. Saskia Scholtes and Francesco Guerrera, "Banks make $38bn from overdraft fees," Financial Times, August 9, 2009 ("US banks stand to collect a record $38.5bn in fees for customer overdrafts this year, with the bulk of the revenue coming from the most financially stretched consumers amid the deepest recession since the 1930s, according to research. The fees are nearly double those reported in 2000.").

By yesterday, 11 days later, the outrage had even attracted the attention of the New York Times' editorial writers. Editorial, "Debit Card Trap," New York Times, August 20, 2009, p. A26.

And what I'd like to know is why have so few newspapers carried this story? "Some have," you say? That's not what I mean. What I want to know is why our local papers have not responded to these shocking revelations by simply gathering and reporting the relevant data about the banks in the local community. A few phone calls should do it. It's not exactly an expensive six-month assignment requiring a team of investigative reporters. And it would be a community service that every subscriber would really appreciate -- at a time when the papers are looking for subscribers.

How about it in my home town, Press-Citizen, Gazette, Daily Iowan?

"So what's the big deal?" I hear you ask. "Overdrafts cost the banks. We've had overdraft fees forever."

"Not like these, you haven't," I respond. Read on.

The story is not in the existence of overdraft fees, it's in (a) the new way banks manipulate them to make them a major profit center, (b) the excesses this produces for some customers, and (c) who those customers are.

Here's how Denninger reports it (bracketed bold headings are mine):
[Banks' New Math] 70% of the overdrafts happen at a POS terminal or ATM, not by writing a check. . . .

There is no reason whatsoever for anyone to take such a hit. The bank knows before they approve the transaction that the money isn't there in the account.

This is not the same thing as a check, which the bank has no way to warn you about before you write it, as there is no "connection" between your checkbook and their computer. . . .

IF we had honest regulators it would be strictly unlawful for a bank to intentionally approve a debit transaction which it knew you did not have the funds to settle . . ..

In fact, it was not all that long ago, in the 1980s and early 1990s, when this was the case: If you went to the ATM and tried to withdraw $100, but didn't HAVE $100, the transaction would be declined. Every time.

But then the banks came to realize that if they let the transaction go through they could make an unregulated loan for that $100 to you, charging you $30 or more for the privilege -- an annualized interest rate of thousands of percent!

[Don't Ask, Don't Tell; The Fountain Pen Robbery] This is clearly predatory behavior. Nobody with half a brain would knowingly sign up for a "service" that would cover a POS or ATM withdrawal at 5,000% interest, yet that is exactly what nearly every bank in the land will currently do by default when you open a new account. They bury the "disclosure" in their terms and conditions, but nowhere do they state these "fees" in equivalent annual percentage rate terms.

[Watch Your Money Disappear in the Banks' Shell-and-Pea Game] It gets better: Banks will intentionally "sort" transactions from a given day to produce the maximum overdraft fee. They sort withdrawals to debit the largest-amount-first, because the fee is assessed per item.

An example: $1,000 in your account. You write checks for $20, $50, $100, $1,000 and all are presented on the same business day.

How many checks will hit you with an overdraft fee? THREE -- every time. The bank will re-order the transactions so that the $1,000 check is processed first, guaranteeing that the $20, $50 and $100 checks overdraw, thereby generating three overdraft charges.

If they processed the transactions "largest item LAST" you'd generate one overdraft fee -- on the $1,000 check.

It gets better.

You have $1,000 in your account. It is after 2:00 PM, the cut-off for a business day. You go to the mall and use your debit card four times to buy a $5 Latte, $15 lunch, a $40 pair of pants and $25 for a couple of movie tickets.

The next morning a $1,000 check hits your account.

The bank processes the $1,000 check first, even though in terms of actual presentation time the debit card withdrawals were approved first, and whacks you for four overdraft fees instead of the one legitimate fee on the $1,000 check. That Latte just cost you as much as $45!
So who bears the primary burden of these fraudulent practices? Surprise . . .
[The Poor Pay More] 3/4 of all accounts have not had an overdraft in the last 12 months. This means that one quarter of all accounts are responsible for basically all of this.

Of the remaining quarter, half of those account for nearly all (90th percentile plus) of the overdrafts. This means that roughly 12.5% of consumers are bearing the entire brunt of these fees.
Why do the regulators permit this? You tell me. These are the same regulators who thought it would be really nifty, ideologically pure, and very profitable to let the banks package what are called "toxic assets" (mortgages unlikely to be paid) and sell them as securities. It was a win-win. So long as this industry-wide ponzi scheme worked, bank managers would collect bonuses and shareholders would get dividends and higher stock prices. And if and when it all collapsed -- as it was obvious it someday would, and now has -- they could do their little Chicken Little dance and scare the Congress (funded with the campaign contributions from Wall Street and the banking industry) into handing over trillions of taxpayers' dollars to cover the losses. And if a few billion of that is paid in bonuses to reward those who brought on the economic collapse, well, hey, they have to live, too.

Karl Denninger continues:
This sort of predation is responsible for nearly $40 billion dollars a year in pure "profit" for the banks, it is directed specifically at those who have the least in resources to cover it, and it relies on lack of clear disclosure and intentionally-predatory "sorting rules" to get past what would otherwise result in a howl of protest by consumers and lawmakers alike.

This sort of practice should be absolutely outlawed, and if we had anything approaching an honest Congress and Federal Reserve it would have been years ago.
As Paul Krugman notes in an aside this morning, "I don’t know if administration officials realize just how much damage they’ve done themselves with their kid-gloves treatment of the financial industry, just how badly the spectacle of government supported institutions paying giant bonuses is playing." Paul Krugman, "Obama's Trust Problem," New York Times, August 21, 2009, p. A27.

Here are some consistent quotes from the New York Times' editorial (linked above):
Moebs Services, a research company that has conducted studies for the government as well as some banks, reported recently that banks will earn more than $38 billion this year from overdraft and bounced-check fees. Moebs also estimates that 90 percent of that amount will be paid by the poorest 10 percent of the customer base.

Federal regulators . . . stood idly by while this system evolved . . ..

[A]s more people began to use debit cards, the banks started to view overdraft fees as a major profit center and started to automatically enroll debit card holders into an overdraft program. Some banks instituted a tiered penalty system, charging customers steadily higher fees as the overdrafts mount. . . .

One college student . . . made seven small purchases including coffee and school supplies that totaled $16.55 and was hit with overdraft fees that totaled $245. . . .

Credit card companies . . . were rightly criticized when some drove up interest rates to 30 percent or more. According to a 2008 study by the F.D.I.C., overdraft fees for debit cards can carry an annualized interest rate that exceeds 3,500 percent. . . .
And so "the beat (ing up of the American consumer by the banking-governmental axis of evil) goes on."

I ask again: Where is the local media's reporting of the bank overdraft practices in our community? Are the papers on the side of the beleaguered local consumers (as newspapers openly were 100 years ago), or on the side of the rapacious, unregulated banks? They can't be both.

And to close with another song, as Pete Seeger asked the question in an only slightly different context,
Which side are you on, boys?
Which side are you on?

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson
# # #

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

School Board Members' Advice

August 19, 2009, 1:50 p.m.
For other, related, blog entries, see:

Nicholas Johnson, "School Board Governance: First Things First; School Board Forum Producers Charis-Carlson and Yates Create Hit, But Where Was Candidates' Awareness of "Job One": Their Governance Model?" September 4, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "IC School Board Needs Fresh Thinking; Swisher Starting Dialogue,"

Nicholas Johnson, "School Boundaries Consultant Folly; Tough Boundary Questions Are for Board, Not Consultants or Superintendent, Plus: What Consultant Could Do," August 28, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "School Board Members' Advice; So You Want to be a School Board Member," August 19, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "UI VPs and ICCSD Consultants; Concerns About Consultants and Vice Presidents," August 14, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "Cluster Schools: Potential for IC District?" June 3, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "School Boundaries; Tonight's Schools Meeting and the more to come,"
March 30, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, " Demolition Disaster; Come Let Us Reason Together," March 10, 2009 (contains links to additional sources);

Nicholas Johnson," Roosevelt: Valuing Our Schools; Process and Substance in School Facilities Decisionmaking," March 9, 2009 (contains "Earlier, Related Writing" section with links to seven additional sources).
So You Want to be a School Board Member
(brought to you by*)

The Iowa City Community School District school board election is coming up September 8. This morning's Press-Citizen is devoted to some advice to the candidates -- and those citizens who will be choosing from among them. I was pleased to have been included among the former school board members asked to contribute.

(1) I believe the former board members' comments will be worth reading by school board members, and candidates, in other school districts as well. And, as the paper's editorial observes, (2) it's remarkable how much agreement there is among the five columnists -- none of whom saw the other columns before this morning (so far as I know).

Those columns follow, starting with my own (blogger's privilege), and concluding with the Press-Citizen's editorial.

Nicholas Johnson, "Board Members Won't be Universally Beloved, So Don't Try to be; There's a Board Because Supposedly Seven Heads Are Better than One. Unanimous Votes Defeat that Purpose," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 19, 2009, p. A11.

The editor asks: "What does it take to be a good school board member?" -- in 300 words or fewer.

For a few more words than that from my school board years see, "Nicholas Johnson's Writing on Education Issues, 1998-2001," which is available at, and includes links to this year's pieces.

Meanwhile, in short:

Avoid either micro-managing or rubber-stamping the superintendent. He's not a member of your board and you're not the superintendent. Maintain separation; you each have very different jobs to do.

Here's how.

Process, procedure, goals, metrics, management information reporting systems. Your first responsibility is not substantive issues (such as boundaries and buildings). It's devising the governance model your board will live by.

I prefer John Carver's approach. If you don't, fine. Find another. Thinking through governance is hard work, but it's your job.

Don't hand off board decisions to "consultants." That's what you're elected to decide.

Data, innovation, analysis, research. Nearly everything you need to know is on the Internet. With 15,000 school districts, there are few challenges you'll confront that haven't been identified, addressed, resolved and Web-posted by at least one of them. Plan to spend hours each week with the online K-12 trade journals and reports from governments, other districts, foundations and academics.

Don't keep one eye on re-election. You won't be universally beloved, so don't try. Speak up. Write out your suggestions and dissents. There's a board because supposedly seven heads are better than one. Unanimous votes defeat that purpose.

Listen, interact, and satisfy parents' concerns when warranted. But you can't fulfill their every wish. You have an equal responsibility to the entire district, including its unrepresented and unheard. Parents paying, say, $25,000 a year for private education can rightfully demand more control. But ours is a free public, not private, school system paid for by taxpayers.
Nicholas Johnson is a former School Board member (1998-2001) who teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law and maintains the blogs and

Liz Crooks, "Remember, Board members Are Responsible for the Whole District," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 19, 2009, p. A11.

On Sept. 8, voters in the Iowa City School District will choose from a slate of candidates on the school board ballot.

Voters will have an opportunity to choose wisely and exercise an informed vote. Many factors must be taken into consideration.

• First and foremost, I want to know a candidate can be an effective board member.

New board members can hit the ground running by understanding board policy and procedure. The best idea goes nowhere without the ability to work within the existing governance structure. In the Iowa City School District that means the Carver policy governance.

In no way does this mean a board member is a rubber stamp.

It means he or she understands that it is the board's role to focus on larger issues, to delegate clearly, to oversee management without meddling, to rigorously evaluate the performance of the organization.

In short, to lead the school district.

• Also important is the ability to keep issues from putting a strain on relationships with other board members, school administrators, parents, teachers and residents. Board members serve for four or more years, working alongside these groups on a range of issues.

Board members do not agree on every issue. A well-functioning board has a diversity of opinions. Board members must treat each other with respect, making every attempt to understand each other's vision for the district.

Single-issue candidates ultimately serve no one well, not even their interest group. By concentrating on a single issue, a board member can lose sight of the big picture. Even when advocating for a specific issue, it is important to work effectively to advance a vision for all the children of the district.

Voters need to remember board members are responsible for more than 11,000 children, not just one child, one building or even one side of the river.
Liz Crooks was a member of the Iowa City School Board from 2005 to 2008.

Laura Reece Flaum, "Are We All On Board with the Role We Want Board Members to Fill?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 19, 2009, p. A11.

As a community, I believe we could use a primer on the question, "What is school board service anyway?"

Before we're lost in the details of a new high school here or there, a boundary change this way or that way, these kids, that tax, those tests, let's discuss what functions we want our school board to serve. And let's clarify the job description of the individual board member. A board won't be effective until there is mutual agreement among its members as to what it is they're supposed to be doing both separately and together.

Does the board serve the interests -- however competing -- of the electorate? Does it serve the administration? Is it a bridge between the two? Or, as our elected officials, does the board drive the district, reflecting community values through the creation of policy, leaving the management of those policies to the administration?

Since the Iowa City School District does not have a "ward system," do individual board members inadvertently represent the schools their children attend and neighborhoods they live in, or does each board member represent the entire community? Is there an inherent conflict of interest having school board members with children enrolled in the district?

How can we most effectively be heard by those we've voted into office?

Answering these and other fundamental questions should be part of the election process.

It's often said that school boards are the most powerful forms of government because the decisions they make hit closest to home. Anyone affected by a boundary change or school closing will attest to that power. So let's make sure that we're all on board with the role we expect our elected officials to fulfill.

Only then can we elect them responsibly, know what to expect from them, and determine how well they are doing their jobs.
Lauren Reece Flaum served on the Iowa City School Board from 1999-2005. She served as board president from 2001-04.

Matt Goodlaxson, "Thankless Job in which You Meet Good People," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 19, 2009, p. A11.

When I was first voted onto the Iowa City School Board in 1998, I read a lot of books on education.

I was trying to learn best practices and wanted to know it all as quickly as possible. I wanted to help "reform" what was taking place in the district.

I learned that knowing my values was more important than trying to know education. I brought a unique life experience with me, and it had little to do with education.

I learned I was a part of a governing body that was directing professionals to educate our children.

I found that envisioning what I wanted our children to end up as, when they leave the school district, needed to be my guide when thinking of rules and guidelines that we wanted the administration to follow.

Administrators are hired for their level of knowledge and competence, I learned to trust that. I found my job was to guide them with what the community wants, needs and expects for our children.

If I had any success as a school board member, it came from listening, processing and always responding to individuals as they came to me or the board to share ideas. Even when I disagreed with them.

I tried hard to consider every student when decisions were made. We are not a homogenous population, I tried to remember that there are those who have differing needs within our community, I tried to remember that when we voted.

It is not easy, serving on a school board. It can be frustrating and thankless yet it also can be be a lot of fun and rewarding. I met a lot of interesting, caring people.

I believe my life was enriched by serving on the Iowa City School Board.

Matthew Goodlaxson served on the Iowa City School Board from 1998 to 2004.

Aletia Morgan, "Looking for Good School Board Members; Board Members Must be Constructive Curmudgeons Who Question Authority," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 19, 2009, p. A11.

This year is the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, and the generation that gave us the phrase "Question authority." As we approach the election for new members of the Iowa City School Board, I would encourage those running for the board to adopt this classic mindset.

Why? Being an effective school board member requires a willingness to question authority, even as you take on the role of an authority figure in the district. Board members should strongly support our schools and our community. But support doesn't mean always nodding your head yes.

Board members need to be willing to ask questions -- of the administration, of faculty, of staff and of the community. At the same time, they also must welcome and be responsive to questions asked of them. This constructive sharing of information can encourage a sense of transparency between the district administration and the community, with the Board as an agent of communication.

Unlike at Woodstock, not everyone sees the world through the same lens. People have different concerns and situations. Thus it is imperative that board members make the effort to learn about district operations in some detail to understand these varying perspectives. But no part-time board member can be an expert in everything. So, spend the time to develop expertise in a few areas that will allow you to make sense of the sometimes conflicting information typical of a complex environment such as the district. Become a constructive curmudgeon.

How do you do this?

• First, you have to commit the time. Don't run if you can't.

• Second, do your own independent research. Pay careful attention to what you receive from the administration, but take the time to learn more about the issues that correspond to your chosen areas of expertise.

• Third, use this knowledge to understand why there might be differing perspectives on an issue. The administration's initial recommendation may not always be right -- but your first response might not be, either.

I don't want to encourage cynicism, but you should recognize that every constituency has its own perspectives and its own set of goals. Accept that most people are trying to do the right thing -- as they see it.

For example, most of your information will come from the administration, which has its own priorities, which may include minimizing controversy and maximizing ease of implementation. You might need to encourage the administration (and your fellow board members) to take chances. Doing what's right isn't always the easy option.

So in the end, don't be afraid to assert yourself if you've done your research and understand the issue. Constant unanimity is not necessarily a good thing and may even be viewed with suspicion by the public. In fact, we may all be better served by constructive disagreement among well-prepared board members.

People who run for the board are nearly always well-intentioned. But good intentions only get you so far. A strong board member must commit the time to be well-prepared, must seek to encourage clear discussions of the issues, and must always be willing to question authority.

Aletia Morgan is the director of the Information Technology Group of the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She served as a member of the Iowa City School Board from 2003-2006 and on the Board of Education of the Hillsborough Township (N.J.) Public Schools from 1992 to 1996.

Editorial, "What We Need From Our Board Members," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 19, 2009, p. A10.

There's a common theme in today's guest columns from former Iowa City School Board members: The residents of the Iowa City School District don't go to the polls to elect a seven-member board that votes unanimously; they vote for individual people to serve on a board in which each member is asked to contribute his or her strengths and insight.

School board members should never sit back and go with the herd -- despite pressure put on them by their colleagues, despite how inevitable the administration's initial recommendation may seem.

On Sept. 8, district voters will go to the polls and elect three of the six remaining candidates to the Iowa City School Board: April Armstrong, Mike Cooper, Tuyet Dorau, Anne Johnson, Jean Jordison and Sarah Swisher. Today's columns suggest the candidates need to start considering several key pieces of advice:

• "Question authority."

• "Board members should strongly support our schools and our community. But support doesn't mean always nodding your head yes."

• "Become a constructive curmudgeon."

• "We may all be better served by constructive disagreement from well-prepared board members."

• "A board won't be effective until there is mutual agreement among its members as to what it is they're supposed to be doing both separately and together."

• "Speak up."

• "Write out your suggestions and dissents."

• "In no way does this mean a board member is a rubber stamp."

• "If I had any success as a school board member, it came from listening, processing and always responding to individuals as they came to me or the board to share ideas."

We suggest the candidates also keep in mind the slogan that former board member Nick Johnson tosses out regularly on his blog: "None of us is as dumb as all of us."

After all, groupthink will never be an adequate substitute for good leadership.

And at a time when the Iowa City School District is facing some momentous decisions -- including what to do with the Roosevelt building, how to bring online the district's first new comprehensive high school in four decades, how to slash millions from the budget and how to redraw school boundaries districtwide -- we need school board members who are ready to challenge "the way we've always done it."

We need board members who recognize that -- while the district has a group of well-qualified, dedicated professionals managing its day-to-day operations -- the district also has an organizational structure that doesn't allow constructive criticism to rise freely from those teaching in the trenches to reach those sitting in the administrative offices.

We need board members who are ready to walk the line between unnecessarily trying to micromanage staff and uncritically agreeing with every recommendation made by staff.

And we need these people to commit to this task for at least four years -- with no possibility for financial reward and with little to no chance of ever hearing the words, "Thank you."

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson
# # #

Monday, August 17, 2009

Socialism, Public Option, Obama and Health Care

August 17, 2009, 5:30 p.m.

General Semantics Meets "Socialized Medicine"
(brought to you by*)

The news that we're not only not going to get the system of "universal, single payer" health care that every other industrialized country offers its citizens, we're not even going to get the watered down "public option," comes as no great surprise, but as a great disappointment nonetheless.
Sheryl Gay Stolberg, "‘Public Option’ in Health Plan May Be Dropped,"
New York Times, August 17, 2009.

What it means is that we're not even going to get health care, we're going to get health insurance. There's a big difference. As Congressman Dennis Kucinich often says, "I don't want every American to have health insurance, I want every American to have health care."

There are many things the free market, competitive, for-profit corporate system does not only well but efficiently. Keeping Americans healthy is not one of them.

* Fast food chains can sell more, have higher profits -- and stock prices -- by fattening up Americans, selling the various combinations of sugar, salt and fat that encourage our eating more -- as well as promoting diabetes and obesity -- than from fruits and vegetables.

* There's more profit from processed foods that keep forever than from fresh produce that spoils.

* More profit from the sale of automobiles (and their associated expenses) than from bicycles.

* More from beer and other alcohol than from V-8 juice or tap water.

* And it all comes to us in the sea of multi-billion-dollar advertising through which we must swim.

* Pharmaceutical companies advertise prescription drugs to potential patients -- who are legally prohibited from buying them ("illegal drugs") -- for the same reason toy companies advertise toys to children who don't have the money to buy them. Toy companies know that children will put pressure on their parents; Big Pharma knows potential patients will, with equal success, put pressure on their doctors -- doctors who might never have prescribed the high-profit drug (as heavily advertised drugs tend to be) without that patient's insistence.
It stands to reason that a heavily advertised "labor saving" lifestyle promoting as little exertion and exercise as possible, coupled with a nutritional food source that is not good for us, will end up producing more obesity, heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes -- among other things -- that will require medical and hospital care.

And who do we look to for the cure? The sickness lobby.

Sickness insurance companies don't increase profits by paying policy holders' doctor and hospital bills. They increase profits by not paying claims, contesting and refusing legitimate bills, refusing to insure those likely to have above average costs, and dropping those enrollees who do have high costs -- and by doubling our premium payments every few years. As a result some 47 million Americans have no coverage at all. Their only option is hospital emergency rooms that run up costs that are multiples of a doctor's visit -- costs that are then shifted to the rest of us in the form of higher bills than what we'd otherwise get, and ultimately even more increases in our premiums.

It is the sickness insurance industry that has created our problems. Why on earth would we turn to it, of all potential saviors, to solve the problems? It's nuts. It's like asking convicted child molesters to guard our children's playgrounds.

But it's also the way Washington works.

Following his comment about disparity of earnings among Americans, Warren Buffett was asked if he wasn't talking "class warfare." He replied along these lines: There's class warfare, all right, but the war is over and my class won.

Or as the old adage, rewriting the even older Golden Rule, has it: The Golden Rule is that them that has the gold makes the rules.

An industry willing to spend $1.3 million a day lobbying Congress, and willing to be among the most generous sources of campaign contributions, can prevent even a puny "public option" from coming into being.

And what's the argument of the public option opponents? As Stolberg reports, "opponents denounce him [President Obama] for promoting “'socialized medicine.'”

Put aside the revealing irony of the reported comment of a town meeting protester, "Keep your government hands off of my Medicare" and the fact that we already have a good deal of "socialized medicine": Medicare, Medicaid, medical services for those in the military and VA hospitals for those who once served, and the sickness insurance benefits for government employees (local, state and federal). That's a lot of "socialized medicine," folks. It's not like, if only you can defeat the public option proposal you will have rid America of socialized medicine.

"Socialism" is defined in, as modified for our purposes, as "a theory or system . . . that advocates the vesting of . . . ownership and control . . . in the community as a whole." The Wikipedia entry says, "Economically, socialism denotes an economic system of state ownership . . .."

I use these definitions because to talk of "socialized medicine" suggests government ownership of a particular function -- not a "socialist society" or "socialist economy" in which all means of production are owned by the state.

When lecturing to business crowds I have occasionally asked the audience, with a show of hands, how many consider themselves "socialists." Usually not a single hand goes up. I then ask, "How many of you drove here today? [Most hands go up.] How many drove on Interstates [inserting the numbers of the local Interstate highways]? [Most of the hands stay up.]" I then ask, "Did you realize you were driving on a socialist highway? Now that you know that, does it trouble you?"

"Socialism" is, for many, an emotionally charged word, an expletive, a swear word you might say. During the 1950s era of Senator Joseph McCarthy the word "communist" carried even more opprobrium -- along with "fellow traveler," "red," and "pinko." "Liberal" has come to carry similar connotations for many today. Such words are conclusory -- they remove the possibility of any additional meaningful conversation, and certainly any further rational analysis. They are used to describe something the speaker believes has no redeeming qualities, something perhaps even indisputably "evil."

Given the American experience, which is clearly a mixed public-private economy, it doesn't make much sense to use the word "socialist" from a descriptive or analytical perspective -- however politically expedient it may be in weakening President Obama, strengthening the Republican Party for next year's elections, or merely defeating any health care reform legislation.

There are so many "government-owned, socialist" enterprises in this country that are something between widely accepted and even celebrated, such as our history of public ("socialist"): libraries, K-12 public schools, National Parks (as well as state, county and city parks), Interstate highways (plus state, county and city roads), the military, Medicare and Medicaid -- essentially every program funded by any governmental unit.

We can be proud of our nation's generally rational, practical, pragmatic approach to these questions. For example:
* Monopolies and quasi-monopolies can be "privately owned," in a sense, but may have their rates, rate of return, and business practices regulated (as with broadcasting stations and the FCC -- at least from the 1920s to the 1960s).

* The Tennessee Valley Authority, and Hoover Dam, are examples of a "public option," offering a benchmark, an alternative, to private power.

* Social Security is a socialized retirement system.

* Barge traffic on the Mississippi, and flood control, are made possible by the Army Corps of Engineers -- as airline operations are made possible by the FAA's air traffic controllers.

* Highways may be "owned" by government, but they are built by private contractors enlisted by the government from the marketplace.

* At least some defense contractors might as well be "government owned," given the large percentage of their cash flow that comes from taxpayers.

* Publishers are given discounts on subsidized rates for books, magazines and newspapers.

* Have we "socialized" agriculture by providing price supports and subsidies?

* Some cities own their cable television systems.

* We have government involvement in the economic model called cooperatives, such as the role of the early Rural Electrification Administration, Rural Electric Co-ops, and the current proposed alternative to the public option.

* And the tax code is riddled with so many special breaks for individual companies and industries that is resembles Swiss cheese.
There seems to have been no limit to the thousands of mix-and-match combinations of economic models we've tried.

Our approach has clearly been pragmatic rather than purist. We have not cared whether a given approach was called "socialist" or "capitalist." What we cared about was getting the best combination of economic models -- in a given instance and throughout the entire economy.

That's what we ought to be doing now with health care. This is no time for ideology, for using "socialist" as an expletive. It's time to help the American people regain their health, and not have to risk bankruptcy when they're sick.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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Friday, August 14, 2009

UI VPs and ICCSD Consultants

July 14, 2009, 8:30 a.m.

Concerns About Consultants and Vice Presidents
(brought to you by*)

UI vice presidents and ICCSD school district consultants are back in the news.

Wikipedia tells us that "A consultant, from the Latin 'consultare,' means 'to discuss' from which we also derive words such as consul and counsel . . .."

Put "consultants" into Google and you get 88 million hits.

Clearly, there's a lot of discussion going on. Why it's going on and whether it's worth the time and money is what interests me.

Rob Daniel's piece in the Press-Citizen yesterday, informing me that "The Iowa City School District could hire a consultant to help sort out what needs to be done to eventually build a third high school," is what got me thinking about consultants once again. Rob Daniel, "District may hire consultant; Would help smooth planning process for new high school," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 13, 2009, p. A3.

Similar issues (for reasons I'll discuss shortly) are raised by this morning's story by Brian Morelli, "UI goes forward with VP search; Hope to fill senior communications position by Nov.," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 14, 2009, p. A3.

It turns out that, notwithstanding the initial objections to the UI expenditure in these economic times, we're going ahead with the creation of yet another Vice Presidential position: "Vice President for Strategic Communication." UI's vice presidents are paid a minimum of $214,000. Thus, this new position -- with benefits, office and staff -- means we're talking well in excess of $300,000 a year (an extra $10 annually from each of 30,000 students).

So why are we doing this now, while cuts are being made throughout the University and UI spokesman Tom Moore acknowledges that "The economic climate requires thoughtful decision-making"? Because, apparently, it was "through that [thoughtful decision-making] process [that] it was determined we should move forward with creating this position."

I guess that explanation should probably be enough to silence all doubters.

After all, as Moore continued, "The new position is essential to . . . assuring that we communicate effectively with all our constituents."

Obviously, I don't have the perspective of the UI president's office, I'm no expert, and I certainly haven't memorized every University of Iowa publication and media effort. But I track every local and national story in the media about the University and almost always have been well impressed with the quality of the University News Service personnel and output, and the range of UI publications: the main UI Web page, the News Digest, the @Iowa news items, the Alumni Magazine and Spectator, the faculty fyi, there's some publication for parents I recall -- and there are no doubt many more, such as our law school's "Iowa Advocate" and four law reviews. When someone at the University stumbles and falls the media is going to notice and report the fact. Not much public relations can do about that. In fact, do too much and we are worse off and charged with "spin," or do too little and we're charged with "stonewalling." That goes with the territory. But day in and day out I'll compare our public relations, quality of News Service releases, and the media treatment we receive as a result, with that of any of our sister institutions. So I don't know exactly what this "communicate effectively with all our constituents" -- obviously suggesting we're not doing it now -- is all about.

Hold that thought. I'll be back to the vice president in a minute.

Before I continue, let me make a couple of things clear. It is not the purpose of this blog entry to criticize either the University or the school district. That's because (a) the points I want to make have to do with administrators' use of consultants, and the equivalent of vice presidents, in general, and (b) because I don't have enough of the background facts involved in these two decisions to come to definitive conclusions about their justification and wisdom. (However, even if I don't have confidence in the answers I do have confidence in the questions and what are not intended to be anything more than superficial suspicions.)

Now let's examine Superintendent Lane Plugge's explanation of the reasons for his consultant.

Daniel reports the consultant is "to discuss the process of getting a new high school built in the North Liberty area. He [Plugge] said the consultant was necessary to help analyze the financial and enrollment data the district already has and use that data to possibly eventually redraw boundaries district wide." He then quotes Plugge, "What I'm looking to get from that consultant is the public engagement in the process."

To summarize, the consultant (a) will "discuss the process" of building new schools, (b) "analyze financial and enrollment data" already possessed, (c) "possibly redraw boundaries," and (d) provide "public engagement."

We'll come back to that explanation as well. But first, just what is it consultants and vice presidents do?

No institution -- corporation, university, government agency -- can have all the specialized expertise it needs in its permanent employees. It makes financial sense, when addressing challenges that could not have been predicted, or that come up extremely rarely, to bring in an outsider -- an architect, trial lawyer, doctor, or specialist in toxic waste disposal. Moreover, even with staff expertise, decisions of sufficient seriousness, when there is disagreement within the profession as to the best course of action, may significantly benefit from "a second opinion."

But all too often the functions of consultants and "vice presidents" (which I'm using in the general sense of anyone holding a title and responsibility for some of a CEO's functions) are far less savory.

A CEO (a title I'll use to include "president," "commissioner," "superintendent," "executive director," or "chair") for a variety of possible reasons may want a "vice president" for "decision deniability," a potential scapegoat, either in general, or with regard to a specific sub-set of his or her responsibilities. Or perhaps he or she is insecure about their ability to do a portion of their job, a job for which they were hired on the assumption they had that expertise. Or perhaps they lack confidence in the ability of those actually doing a given task and, rather than go through the unpleasantness of firing them, prefer to hire another administrative layer of oversight. (Again, I have no factual basis to believe any of this applies to UI VPs.)

A consultant may be hired for similar reasons. They may be brought in, and instructed, to support a decision of the CEO (already made in fact; while the appearance is that the consultant is proposing something not formerly considered) that needs political shoring up. They may be hired to perform tasks well within the job descriptions of permanent employees -- tasks those employees are incompetent, or otherwise simply not up, to performing.

At best, an outside consultant will have to be educated from the knowledge base possessed by the permanent employees. At worst s/he will bring to the institution little more than the general, basic textbook knowledge from their profession that many of the employees could quickly read on their own.

During my time on the school board we recognized the urgency of addressing (creating, actually) the governance system (the role and function of the board; the members relations with each other; the board's relationship to the superintendent, and other administrators; the functions of the superintendent and his/her evaluation; management information reporting systems). We could have hired a consultant; not just someone who had read John Carver's books, but the author -- at a cost of about $5000 a day. Instead, we chose to buy the books, read them, and relate Carver's suggestions to our own local circumstances. As a result, we were not simply accepting a consultant's suggestions with less than full understanding, we were willing to put in the hours necessary to really master the concepts and make the governance system we created our own.

Let me repeat and make clear: (a) I like Lane Plugge ("what's not to like?") and try to be as supportive as I can, and (b) I really do not know the "back story" on why he and the Board are now considering hiring a consultant. (c) I'd like to believe it's fully warranted in this instance.

It's just that superficially and simplistically it seems to me the tasks he has identified are tasks well within the job descriptions and expertise of administrators and staff the District already has in place: the ability to (a) "discuss the process" of building new schools, (b) "analyze financial and enrollment data" already possessed, (c) "possibly redraw boundaries," and (d) encourage "public engagement."

We have bright and experienced school board members. We have a number of administrators with advanced degrees from quality colleges of education. Moreover, isn't the process of building a high school very similar to the process of building an elementary school -- only for slightly bigger people? Isn't that something they've already done? Do they really need a consultant to "discuss the process"? Haven't they been thoroughly trained, aren't they already experienced, in the analysis of financial and enrollment data? Isn't the drawing of school boundaries about as bullseye central to the responsibility of a school board member (setting goals and criteria) and superintendent (application of Board's criteria to data) as any decision they'll ever make?

I've provided some suggestions on how they might improve their efforts at "public engagement" -- as have a number of other members of the public. But this is something they ought to be doing on an ongoing basis, and it's not rocket science. If they really have additional questions about how best to do it there's plenty of advice on the Internet and from local citizens. And perhaps the first principle of "public engagement" is that it is self-defeating to delegate the task to a consultant -- Board members need to involve their personal hearts, minds and bodies in the process.

Ultimately my initial questions about this use of a consultant may be satisfactorily answered. I really do hope so. It's just that those answers are not now apparent.

Similar questions remain for me about the UI's latest vice presidential addition. I am even more hopeful that my initial questions about that one will also be answered.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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Although entered as a comment by "BigOldDiesel" on the Press-Citizen's UI VP story rather than here, because it expresses a reasonable and relevant point of view, different from my own, in fairness I wanted to reproduce it here:


Perhaps we've been reading different versions of the PC. It's pretty clear to me that both the ICCSD and the UI have gotten their butts kicked in the realm of public opinion lately, and that they need help.

I agree that both Mason and Plugge should have better skills in terms of PR and public engagement, but at the same time I look at all the things they have to do well as CEOs... we're already asking a lot of our executives, and if they can hire this expertise and that expertise will a) enable better decisions, and b) give them time to focus on areas more appropriate to their skills, that seems like a positive.

I don't like Plugge. I think that he's a pretty poor executive and that he's done tremendous harm to our district. Since we can't get rid of him at this point, I think getting him some help with an issue that's clearly beyond his skills isn't a bad idea.

I like Mason, and I think she and the University needs PR expertise in a huge way.
8/14/2009 11:49:39 AM