Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Earmarks and codpieces: Symbols matter

Yesterday, U.S. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell announced his support for a two-year moratorium on earmarks, a form of appropriating money that is deeply unpopular with the Republican base, particularly those who associate themselves with the Tea Party movement.

The amount of money that goes to earmarks is large, as far as my family’s budget is concerned (about 15 or 16 billion dollars), but as a percentage of the federal budget, it’s quite small. It’s around 0.4% of the total budget and 1% or so of the discretionary budget(1).

In many ways, banning earmarks is a symbol, and if Congress can figure out how to use different tricks during the appropriations process, tracking this money could theoretically be more difficult under a no-earmarks rule than the current system, which is why I applaud the move, but with realistic expectations and a hefty dose of skepticism.

If you’re a no-earmarks person and this is your big issue, go ahead and break out the party hats, hang some streamers, and maybe have a few slices of layer cake. But don’t swallow too much champagne, and for the love of God, keep away from the mixed drinks at the bar (It may look like an open bar, but you’ll get the bill later). Considering the history that we (and by “we”, I mean the human race) have with politicians, we’ll need to stay sober and clear-headed to deal with whatever accounting/appropriations tricks they may invent the days ahead.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of the Transportation Security Administration(TSA), if you’ve ever wanted to be on a reality show, all you have to do is travel, and you can be the star of Who Wants To Be the Next Unpaid Nude Model?!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Moving Our Schools: A fresh perspective on a local controversy

An Open Letter to the Board of Education, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools:

My name is Greg Garrison, and I’m the father of four students at Smith Academy of International Languages: two in French (fourth grade and second grade) and two in Chinese (second grade and Kindergarten). On top of this, my wife and I have four other children and a multitude of creatures that run, scamp, swim, crawl, slither, hop, and eat (continuously).

There will be no quiz, so you need not remember these details, but suffice it to say that life in the Garrison household is complicated and rarely quiet, to put it mildly. While I'm making introductions, I should mention that this is an open letter from a single individual, and the direct language and opinions expressed in this note are mine alone. I am not a representative for other parents, the school leadership team, the PTSA, etc.

My four Smith children will be impacted by your upcoming decision regarding facilities for next year, and I know that you’re putting your time and best effort into making it judiciously, which I appreciate. The quality of their lives will be affected significantly, whether our program moves to Waddell and thrives, moves to Harding and withers, or stays where it is while we hope for a future facility that is bigger and better.

The students at Waddell and Harding also, obviously, face a good deal of uncertainty, and whether we like the outcome or not, I think that it’s fair to say that families at all three schools will find breathing an easier task once your decision has been announced.

The late economist Milton Friedman once said, “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.” I have no doubt that everyone’s intentions are pure. I have no doubt that the people who built the programs at Harding, Smith, and Waddell had great intentions, good ideas, and genuine love for children. I have no doubt that you have the best possible intentions and want the best for every student. I imagine that your belief in the importance of guiding principles is well-meant, and objective standards and guiding principles are important. If, however, we allow an intention to follow through with our best laid schemes (neighborhood schools) to outweigh the known, tested results of successful schools (Smith and Harding), don’t be surprised if those plans go awry and we find ourselves wondering what happened.