The “Nanny” State

February 23, 2020

Republicans complain endlessly about “The ‘Nanny’ State”. Do anything good for the people – that’s “The ‘Nanny’ State.” Can’t we do anything for ourselves? What happened to self-reliance?

Actually self-reliance doesn’t work by itself. We call it self-reliance when young people put themselves through college, but jobs have to be available and pay enough for young people to put themselves through. The college has to be there, affordable, with the support needed to to provide great educations. I remember hearing Marty Silverman, one of Albany Law’s major benefactors, describe putting himself through law school on the profits of a small gas station. That says a great deal about the relative cost of a law school education. I started law school in 1962 with a full $1600 scholarship. In today’s dollars it would have been about $14,000. Try that now. My father, by the way, was a high school teacher; mother had just died.

Based on his appreciation of knowledge workers, Peter Drucker, a leading business mind of the twentieth century, saw that our leading industries are where our best and brightest graduates had gone twenty-year earlier. Those graduates created the strength of the industries they entered.

The US built the world’s envy of an education system – everyone wants to study here – though, ironically, we are now letting that educational system atrophy. Power and economic success followed the creation of our educational system. When Kermit Hall was President of the University at Albany he addressed a breakfast crowd downtown at Whiteman, Osterman and Hanna. There were two messages he wanted to get across. One was that he had been to China and studied their university system. He wanted us to know that they were building great new universities with prodigious speed and scale. The other was that corporations that are based on technology, intellectual-property or other special skills locate where they can get the best and brightest to work for them.

That has nothing to do with a nanny state. It is about making excellent investments in workforce development. The same is true of the success of the rest of the so-called Brick countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China; and the Asian Tigers – Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. The newer so-called Mint countries – Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Turkey – are trying the same strategy, though international politics and civil wars hold some of them back.

By contrast, Republicans continue to feed us outmoded thinking, outmoded economics, outmoded ideas about how to strengthen our communities, our industries, our education and our people. They deserve an F.

Deriding the nanny state for investing in its people isn’t even efficient in the short run, forcing business to compete for staff on the world market and outsource their work to places where it can be done by the world’s best and brightest. That, by the way, used to be us. And it could be again. But it’s not magic. It’s based on investments in people, not handouts to corporations. Give people what they need to succeed and the values we inculcate into them will have a chance to shine. Deny them the basics and whistle our future into the wind.

—This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 25, 2020.


The Importance of Learning from Others

November 27, 2018

Americans have been reluctant to accept the importance of studying other countries. We tend to divide them into good and evil and assume that’s all we need to know.

As a teenager I was interested in science and in classical music. For both, I thought it wise to learn some German. But few schools taught it in the wake of World War II. Germans were the enemy.  But two World Wars provided reason enough to study German. President Roosevelt understood how vile and dangerous Hitler was long before Pearl Harbor and took steps to prepare the American military because he could and did read Hitler’s Mein Kampf in the original German.

Americans, however, seem more concerned about being subverted by knowledge of foreign places than by the costs of ignorance. It’s as if many of us have an inferiority complex about our own culture. White racists bask in western European skin color even while screaming America first. America has enormous worldwide influence, but many Americans continue to fear comparison to worldwide knowledge.

From the Napoleonic wars through the Franco-Prussian and two world wars, old World European nations repeatedly attempted world dominance and took a hundred million people to their graves. This country created or supported numerous international institutions to keep Europe at peace, the Soviet Union at bay and level out the boom and bust cycle of international economics, but too many Americans fear those same international institutions as if they were the work of foreign hands designed to subvert us.

The costs of ignorance are serious. Too many American Administrations have treated Saudi Arabia as an ally though it is run as a savage and medieval country, and too many, except for Obama, couldn’t accept talking or negotiating with Iran despite repeated overtures to the U.S. and the fact that they are one of the most westernized, even Americanized, countries in the Middle East. We’ve made similar mistakes trying to control who governs in Central and South America, Vietnam, and other countries. America seemed incapable of appreciating the strategic sense and the long game behind Obama’s attempt to strengthen America’s position in the Far East. It may be too late to recover the ground lost to China.

It’s time to get over our terror of learning about and respecting other peoples. It’s an odd terror for a country made up of so many different peoples. It’s an odd terror for a country in which we can walk out of a bus or train station in cities like New York and enjoy the kindness of strangers who themselves come from all over the world. It’s an odd terror in a country where we talk with taxi drivers about their immigration to and joy at being here. It’s a terror that undermines the benefits of our universally admired university system.

Does one really have to be from somewhere else to appreciate the strengths of our own country? Must appreciating our own country rest on ignorance of others? Or can we trust ourselves to learn about others, to appreciate their strengths as well as faults, to build on and incorporate their accomplishments into our own as we have done in art, literature, music, theatre, dance and so many other arts and sciences, to learn from others as well as from each other as we build our own strengths? Or are we really afraid that recognizing the strengths of others will sap our own?

The internet attributes to many people, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Sam Levenson, a family friend of ours, that we must learn from the mistakes of others because we don’t have time to make them all ourselves. First, however, we need to encourage each other to explore and learn.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 27, 2018.

 

 

 

 


Harden The Electrical Grid

September 11, 2018

I’d like to follow up last week’s commentary with an aspect of the damage done by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico that should be a warning to all Americans.

Virtually all experts will tell you that the American electrical grid is vulnerable.

Without electricity virtually nothing works. Electricity is essential to all our meters and gauges and thermostats and doorbells – virtually everything that we work with, is electrical.

I tried to compose this commentary while taking a walk in my neighborhood but suddenly I noticed that the screen was stuck on a particular word. And then I got a message that my phone had disconnected from WiFi. Wi-Fi and everything else is electrical. All of our Communications are based on the electrical system. Cell phones, telephones, radio, television, cable – everything is based on electricity. Old fashioned wired telephones, known as landlines, were the rare system built with a separate power source and that’s one of the reasons why we kept a landline in our house along with our cell phones. We wanted to be able to communicate even when the grid went down.

I’ve been in several power outages of varying lengths. When New York City had an outage of several days we got places on foot. New York City is designed for foot traffic with sidewalks and lots of little business areas in reach for most of us. But the elevator didn’t work in my elderly cousin’s apartment building and she was trapped on the 5th floor. She couldn’t get downstairs and was dependent on the kindness of neighbors to bring her food. Of course, in a power outage our refrigerators don’t work. Many of our kitchen stoves won’t work even if they run on gas because they depend on electrical starters. Our thermostats won’t work and the heat won’t come on even if it’s a gas, oil or other non-electrical system because they depend on an electrical spark. Almost all factories, machinery, offices, shipping and stores depend on electricity for necessary functions. Everything crashes without electricity. Hospitals don’t function without electricity so  most have invested in backup generators but they are very expensive to run for any length of time.

It turns out that the gas pipeline system is dependent on electrical supplies for many of its functions. Without electricity, the modern world we live in is at a standstill as Puerto Rico has been for months.

But the grid is vulnerable. It can and does go down for accidental, malicious and natural reasons. To hand China or Russia the power to bring the good old U.S.A. to its knees, just don’t harden the grid. The internet was originally created by the Defense Department – that’s right, the federal government Department of Defense – because it had identified vulnerabilities in the land-based private telephone system. Patriots on both sides of the aisle need to see that the electrical and internet grids are hardened, fast.

— This commentary was originally scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 11, 2018. The broadcast by NPR and WAMC of the hearings on the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh, however, pushed back the originally scheduled broadcast. We plan to broadcast it at a later date but I am posting it now nonetheless.


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