Category Archives: Social services

“Where Is the Closest Tiki Bar?”

tiki_barBy Peter Galuszka

Often times, blog commenters really hit the nail on the head. This is the case with “Virginiagal2” who responded to my blog post earlier this week that Richmond’s schools are decrepit and crumbling, as Style Weekly detailed in a recent cover story.

They note that Richmond’s elite has done little for its public schools while chasing higher-profile and extraneous projects such as a summer training camp for the Washington Redskins and a new baseball stadium for the Minor League AA Flying Squirrels.

Schools? What schools?

Blog posts also note that NFL football star Russell Wilson, a Richmonder, stayed at private Collegiate school after his father saw academics as more important than sports and blunted maneuvers by Richmond public schools to recruit Wilson during his school years.

Part of the problem, as Virginiagal2 notes, is that Richmond’s select and self-appointed “leadership” ignores the city’s serious problems while they embark another pointless road trip to another city, typically in the sunny South, to gather ideas on how they should proceed with their (how to describe?) “leadership.”

Just a week or so ago, about 160 of Richmond’s “leaders” were bopping around Tampa, sampling its eateries and noting the watery views. The biggest cheerleader for these junkets is The Richmond Times-Dispatch, which is very much a propaganda organ of the area’s chamber of commerce. Its publisher Thomas A. Silvestri was chamber chair a few years back yet few commented on the potential conflict of interest. On the Tampa trip, the editor of the editorial pages wrote a supposedly cute series of reports in a “postcard” (ha-ha) style about the Tampa trip. Here’s one tidbit:

“About 160 Richmonders will spend three days sipping from Tampa’s version of youth’s fabled fountain. Where oh where is the closest tiki bar?”

I couldn’t have said that better myself. Next, I’d like to copy what Virginiagal2 had to say in response to my blog. She absolutely nails it:

“The cost of sending a kid to Collegiate is beyond a lot of young families. What do you think those Richmond families value the most – a sports team that has around 5,000 people attend games, or a good safe public school for their kids? The RTD has been shilling for the stadium for months – when’s the last time the RTD advocated for money for better city schools? Do you ever remember them encouraging businesses to partner with city schools? Advocate for vouchers, yes – advocate for baseball, yes – improve the overall public schools, no.

‘nuf said.

Is Blackwater Successor in Ukraine?

blackwaterBy Peter Galuszka

A private security company with ties to Virginia and northeastern North Carolina has been linked to rising tensions between Ukraine and Russia that some fear could turn into war.

The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement April 8 saying that a security firm named “Greystone” that is tied historically to the defunct and controversial Blackwater special security operations company has sent “about 150” mercenaries to Ukraine disguised as a military unit called “Falcon.”

A spokeswoman for Greystone denied to ABC news that the firm was involved with Ukraine while other news outlets were told the firm had no comment.

Greystone is registered in Bermuda, according to ABC. It was at one time linked to Blackwater although its ties to Xe Services and Academi which succeeded Blackwater after its demise are unclear.

Blackwater was founded by Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL, in Moyock, N.C., near the Virginia border.  It hired former special forces military and used a swampy tract for training. The Moyock operations is close to a Navy facility at Dam Neck in Virginia Beach which is the base for the SEALs’ Team Six that tracked down and killed terrorist Osama bin Laden.

Blackwater was hired by the Bush Administration to handle security for officials and other duties in Iraq. Employees of the Blackwater firm were involved in the shooting of 17 people in Baghdad in 2007 and the firm was later banned from U.S. government work after a slew of problems in Iraq, Sudan and other countries.. During the controversy, it changed its name to Xe Services and then again to Academi, which has its headquarters in McLean. Prince has left the company.

Greystone, ABC reports, was formed as a sister company of Blackwater to handle security matters for foreign clients while Blackwater concentrated on U.S. government contracts.

The Russian government started accusing both Blackwater and Greystone of being involved in Ukraine last month although U.S. officials have denied it. Tensions have risen after Ukraine’s pro-Russian president was ousted and Russia seized Crimea. Russia has thousands of troops massed on the Ukrainian border.

Another footnote in this strange tale: a director of Academi is retired Navy admiral Bobby Ray Inman, who is a former head of the National Security Agency, a deputy director of the CIA and a former head of naval intelligence. Inman also had been a director of as the last board chairman of then-Richmond-based Massey Energy, which was forced to be sold to Alpha Natural Resources after a deadly explosion at a West Virginia coal mine.

I’m not making this up.

Richmond’s Huge and Hidden Problem

The Seahawk's Wilson

The Seahawk’s Wilson

 By Peter Galuszka

There’s been plenty of image-building on this blog site in favor of what is perceived to be a “new” Richmond.

In this view, the former Capital of the Confederacy famous for its gentile white elite and, unfortunately, race politics, is being transformed to a major draw for talented young people and active retirees with plenty of diversity. Some evidence bears this out, such as the wealth of arts and culture and increasing upscale apartment rentals in the city.

The image is being pushed along by Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones who wants to anchor his downtown drive by placing a controversial baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom. There is plenty of angst about his idea given that the city has other, more pressing concerns. They include its 26 percent poverty rate and the fact that the mostly white suburban counties seem to be moving farther from the Richmond sphere of influence.

There’s yet another big and unaddressed problem that may spell the ultimate fate of the city. Its school system is decrepit, as two recent stories in Style Weekly to which I contribute, point out.

One is a deeply reported cover story this week by Tom Nash that takes readers on a horrifying tour of several Richmond schools. Thompson Middle School has ceiling that ooze gunk. Diluted tar falls in classrooms. Fairfield Court Elementary needs a new roof. A tile fell on a student but the fix is $90,000 or one fifth of the district’s school budget for the year. Tom reveals more problems at Carver Elementary and Armstrong High, among others.

Most of Richmond’s school buildings are more than 60 years old. Dana Bedden, the system’s new superintendent, says school buildings are the worst he’s ever seen and that includes a stint in the District of Columbia. Reports say that $26 million is needed just this year to make a corrective dent in the problem.

Another Style story of note is an opinion piece by Carol A.O. Wolf, a former journalist and school board member. It was published in February, just after the Seattle Seahawks crushed the Denver Broncos in the Superbowl. The star was Seahawk quarterback Russell Wilson who grew up in Richmond.

Wilson’s dad placed him at Collegiate, a highly regarded private school in the West End. The Sporting News reported that when Wilson was a ninth grader at Collegiate, Richmond public schools started angling to recruit him to play ball for them. Dad said no. According to him, “I didn’t put Russell in Collegiate for sports, I put Russell in Collegiate to get the best education he could get.”

So much for Richmond’s public schools. It’s really too bad, as well, that the public school system is so neglected and that the mayor and other opinion makers are ignoring huge municipal problems in favor of top-down development like the new baseball stadium of questionable value.

An Inconvenient Obamacare Truth

SNL spoofBy Peter Galuszka

It is highly amusing to watch Obamacare detractors mock news that the Affordable Care Act has more than reached it goal by signing up 7.1 million Americans.

This inconvenient truth turns the Fox News echo chambers on its head. You also read a bit of that on this blog – there’s an unassailable assumption that Obamacare is a certain failure, the Website is a mess and that it will be rejected hands down by consumers. Therefore, it’s a given that it must be repealed or undergo massive surgery.

Obamacare deniers also link expanding Medicaid to the fray. That is why the General Assembly has not passed a budget. Hard right Republicans in the House of Delegates, led by House Speaker Bill Howell, have set up expansion along the lines of their Obamacare fight. Medicaid is DOA, they claim, and they are quite right risking shutting down state government July 1 to make their point.

Of course, they are plowing ground for November elections in which they assume (underlined) that Obamacare will be a killer topic for their allies.

Problem is, if Americans keep signing up (early problems with the Website notwithstanding), they kinda lose some of their thunder. They may have to come up with a new mule to beat.

Anyway, I caught this skit on Saturday Night Live last night and immediately thought of Bacon’s Rebellion. Enjoy!

Is Virginia Now the “Mother of Dictators?”

Dictator_charlie3315 By Peter Galuszka

One of the serious problems in this state that has been called the “Mother of Presidents” is that its electoral process is in many ways anything but a democracy.

In far too many districts, especially rural and suburban ones, gerrymandering and autocratic party diktat mean that the races are utterly non-competitive and devoid of much debate on issues essential for the state’s well-being.

In 2013, for instance, only 12 or 14 of the 100 races for the House of Delegates were actually competitive, according to the Sorenson Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia. That’s an odd fact to ponder.

And that is why you get unneeded legislative sessions such as the one starting today to try and sort out Medicaid expansion and a $96 billion, two year budget. My view is that both the expansion and the budget are being held hostage by hard-line social and fiscal conservatives who are unwilling to consider the needs of moderates or even their own constituents, many of whom are receiving Medicaid or who benefit by its expansion. Indeed, polls show that more Virginians are in favor of expanding Medicaid. A broad coalition of activists, Democrats, business executives and moderate Republicans favors it.

For more, check this opinion piece I wrote this Sunday in The Washington Post.

The bottom line is that Virginia is changing but how fast is held in check by engineered voting districts. More people from other states or countries are moving here and that is certain to shake up the old ways of doing business. More millennials are leaving rural areas for cities where there are more jobs and progressive ideas. Eventually, their voices will be heard but not until there’s a level playing field.

According to Leigh Middleditch, a Charlottesville lawyer and Sorenson founder, a crucial task for the Old Dominion is to address redistricting issues. He’s part of the bipartisan Virginia Redistricting Reform Coalition, to bring elections back into balance. As he notes, they’re getting the money and haven’t given themselves six years to complete the job.

I wish them well. If that happens you won’t have a tiny, hard-right cadre representing maybe three percent of the eligible electorate dictating who the candidate is because they only have to worry about a primary in a rigged district.

It’s become “the Virginia Way.”

Someone Has to Worry about Tomorrow

Mercedies Harris

Mercedies Harris

Mercedies Harris, speaking to the Times-Dispatch, came as close as anyone to summing up what Virginia’s Medicaid debate is all about: “The system is crazy. They have got to stop worrying about what is going to happen tomorrow and deal with the people who need help today.”

The 53-year-old veteran and Waynesboro resident suffers from glaucoma, which, if it goes untreated, likely will lead to blindness. Harris has spent his meager savings, and he’s about to lose the house where he lives with his wife and a step-son who suffers from seizures. He applied for Medicaid but was turned down because he works and his income — $8.88 an hour — is too high. But he would qualify if Virginia expanded the program, as allowed by the Affordable Care Act and as proposed by Governor Terry McAuliffe and General Assembly Democrats.

With the federal government promising to pay 90% of the cost of Medicaid expansion, it is hard to tell someone like Harris — who served his country in the military and, to all appearances, remains a contributing member of society — that, no, we can’t help you. And the idea of letting him go blind, so that he, too, becomes a total ward of the state, seems the height of folly.

Republicans insist that Medicaid must be modernized before expanding the program. To buttress their argument, they have nothing comparable to the stories of real-live people like Harris, just bloodless numbers. That’s why they could well lose the debate and McAuliffe could well get his way. But that doesn’t mean the Republicans are wrong. Someone has to worry about tomorrow.

The nation and the Commonwealth of Virginia cannot continue expanding the social safety net forever. Even after an increase in the federal income tax and even after the budget cuts imposed by sequestration, the federal budget is on a trajectory to hell. Here is the Congressional Budget Office‘s take on the next 10 years:

After [2015] deficits are projected to start rising—both in dollar terms and relative to the size of the economy—because revenues are expected to grow at roughly the same pace as GDP whereas spending is expected to grow more rapidly than GDP. In CBO’s baseline, spending is boosted by the aging of the population, the expansion of federal subsidies for health insurance, rising health care costs per beneficiary, and mounting interest costs on federal debt. By contrast, all federal spending apart from outlays for Social Security, major health care programs, and net interest payments is projected to drop to its lowest percentage of GDP since 1940.

And that’s an optimistic scenario. It assumes that the economy continues to grow in a slow-but-steady fashion without recession for what would amount to the longest business cycle in U.S. history. The longest recorded business cycle lasted less than 11 years. The current business cycle is almost five years old — another 10 years would make it the Methuselah of economic expansions. History suggests that the U.S. will suffer another recession and revenues, prone to wild gyrations due to its highly progressive structure, will plunge. The question then will be, can a president and Congress facing a fiscal crisis in 2024 be entrusted to keep the promises made by the president and Congress in 2014?

Without major policy changes, according to the CBO, the situation in 2024 will be dire: The deficit will exceed $1 trillion in a non-recessionary scenario. (One can only speculate what the deficit would be in a recession; it could exceed the $1.6 trillion-a-year level seen in the dark days of the last recession.) Ten years from now the national debt will blow past $21.6 trillion, interest payments on the debt will run $880 billion yearly, and the Social Security trust fund will be roughly seven years away from exhaustion. While entitlements and interest payments on the debt now amount to 66% of the budget, they will consume 77% in ten years (again, assuming no recession).

If a recession occurs in the early 2020s, the fiscal landscape will be far worse than it was in 2008 when the economy cratered. The United States will be forced either to cut discretionary spending (which includes the vast regulatory apparatus of the federal government plus the military), cut entitlements or cut both. The only way to avoid that fate in 2024 will be to start cutting entitlements sooner, not later. Continue reading

The Terrible Link Between Income and Longevity

RAM in Wise County

RAM in Wise County

By Peter Galuszka

Call it a tale of two Virginias.

One is rich with military retirees, ample benefits and gated communities. The other is remote, poor and polluted, where the life expectancy for men is merely 64 years.

The former is Fairfax County at the heart of NOVA, Virginia’s economic engine, the land of federal largesse. The other is 350 miles away in McDowell County, in the coal belt of southern West Virginia just a stone’s throw from the Old Dominion border.

In one of the best and most glaring reporting of income disparity in this country, Annie Lowery of The New York Times lays out the stunning contrasts in two very different places maybe a six-hour car ride distant. The nut of her report is that higher income means longer lives thanks to better access to decent food, retirement benefits and medical care.

In Fairfax County, men live to be 82 and women 85. In McDowell County, men (as noted) live to 64 and women to 73. Even more astonishing is that this is happening in 21st century America, the supposed land of plenty. If ever there were a call to do something about health care, this is it.

Think what you will about the Affordable Care Act, the prior system of managed care with Big Insurance calling the shots just isn’t working. One also wonders, in the case of McDowell, where Medicaid and Medicare are. Where are the benefits from the coal companies that used to dominate employment in the area?

This hits home for me because I grew up partially in West Virginia when my father, a Navy doctor, decided to retire and go into practice there. I also traveled about researching a recent book on the coal industry. I spent a lot of time in Mingo County, the next one over from McDowell. I drove plenty of times through the small town of Williamson, a major rail marshaling yard, and was struck by how many elderly people I saw pacing slowly with oxygen tanks strapped to their aluminum walkers. Coal-related black lung? Too many cigarettes? Breathing air dirty from coal trains and trucks  and strip mines? Over in Fairfax, people of a similar age are more likely to be in a warm swimming pool at an aquatic aerobics class.

Back in the Appalachians, one morning my photographer Scott Elmquist and I were traveling from Kentucky back into Mingo County and I happened to see a Remote Area Medical free clinic at a high school in Pikesville. We turned in and found more than 1,000 people thronging the gymnasium floor waiting for doctors or for their turns at the more than seven dozen dental chairs for free care they couldn’t otherwise afford. Some I spoke with had been waiting there since 1:30 that morning. RAM runs a circuit that includes Wise County in Virginia, also in coal country.

So how did these people slip through the cracks? The Times notes that in McDowell, there aren’t any organic food stores or Whole Foods. The place in inundated with fast food and convenience stores that sell ready-to-go hot dogs, energy drinks and salty chips.

Another reason is the connection with the coal industry which has been so lucrative over the years that it should have provided plenty for the elderly. Instead, as coal seams play out and natural gas usurps coal’s role in electricity generation, coal firms are setting up to skedaddle. One is Patriot Coal, an offshoot of St. Louis giant Peabody, that took over its Appalachian interests so the mother firm could concentrate on richer areas in the U.S. West and Asia. Patriot was set up to fail and perhaps take retirement benefits with it. It’s an obvious scam. You spin something off to get some distance between you and having to pay pensions and health benefits.

Another factor is what they are doing with the local environment. Mountaintop removal is a powerful instrument in places around McDowell. At the blog Blue Virginia, they ran an intriguing map showing just how this highly destructive form of mining that rips up thousands of acres overlays with high poverty areas. Out of sight out of mind. It’s a shame how many in the green movement are forgetting the horrors of mountaintop to beat up on fracking which may be closer to home for them. Continue reading

Journalism’s Death Is Greatly Exaggerated

rachel_maddowBy Peter Galuszka

“Investigative reporting, R.I.P. In-depth reporting is dead. If not dead, it’s comatose. Reeling from declining revenue and eroding profit margins, print media enterprises continue to lay off staff and shrink column inches.”

Err, maybe not. James A. Bacon Jr., meet Rachel Maddow.

The quote comes from advertised “sponsorships” in which an outside entity can help fund reporting and writing on this blog. It’s a morphed form of traditional journalism and there’s nothing wrong with it, provided the funding source is made clear.

But what might be jumping the gun is the sweeping characterization that in-depth reporting is dead. That is precisely the point of Maddow’s monthly column in The Washington Post.

She notes that it was local traffic reporters and others who broke the story about Chris Christie’s finagling with toll booths to punish a political opponent. She shows evidence of other aggressive reporting in Connecticut and in South Carolina, where an intrepid reporter got up early one morning, drive 200 miles to the Atlanta airport and caught then disappeared Gov. Mark Sanford disembarking from an overseas flight to see his Latin American mistress when he had claimed he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Closer to home, it was the Post, which has seen more than 400 newsrooms layoffs over the past years, that broke GiftGate, the worst political scandal in Virginia in recent memory. The rest of the state press popped good stories, including the Richmond Times-Dispatch that has been somewhat reinvigorated despite nearly 10 years of corporate cheerleading and limp coverage under publisher Tom Silvestri. The departure of the disastrous former editor Glenn Proctor, Silvestri’s brainchild, helped a lot as did the sale of the paper by dysfunctional Media General to Warren Buffett.

To be sure, there are sad departures. The Hook, a Charlottesville alternative, did a great job reporting the forced and temporary ouster of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan, but it has folded.

Funding, indeed, remains a huge problem, even at Bacon’s Rebellion where we all write pretty much for free. One solution, Maddow notes, happened in a tiny Arkansas town that found it was located over a decaying ExxonMobil fuel pipeline. The community raised funds to help hire more reporters to break through the news.

She suggests: “Whatever your partisan affiliation, or lack thereof, subscribe to your local paper today. It’s an act of civic virtue.”

Hear! Hear!

How Shanghai, Finland and Canada Teach

chinese studentsBy Peter Galuszka

Not one to be carried away by the STEM craze, I did find it fascinating in today’s editorial page of the New York Times that the United States is way low on the  totem pole on math scores for students. We’re below Latvia, Russia and Spain and a little above Sweden, Israel and Greece.

Shanghai leads the pack while Finland and Canada are in the upper middle.

Why so?

According to the Times, the better scoring countries are more vigorous in their training and selection of teachers, have funding mechanisms that are more equal and have school systems that shun elitism.

Teaching is a respected profession that pays more than it does in the U.S. If you want to get a general idea about how teachers are regarded, read this blog for a dose of sneering and snobbery. Not so in Finland where teachers make just a little more than average salaries. But they are better selected and highly regarded by the Finnish public. Snobbery is out. Educating the poor is as important as teaching the rich.

Canada does not fund its schools according to property taxes the way Americans do. The apple pie method ensures entitlement and disparity since richer communities obviously put more money into schools. The Canadians do it more on a provincial basis and by need so there isn’t the huge spending and resource gap between rich and poor. Likewise, they automatically cut back during bad economic times. In Virginia, teachers are usually the first targeted and among them the first to go are arts, music and physical education teachers.

One of the Gregorian Chants you hear on this blog is that spending has nothing to do with quality. In fact, lots of spending distributed equally has everything to do with quality.

Shanghai led China’s comeback in education after Mao’s zany ideas destroyed it. The Times believes that Shanghai has boosted its students’ performance by making sure that everyone — including the children of migrants — are included. To be sure, there’s plenty of graft and influence peddling in China so that rich kids get prime placement, but one can’t argue with the scores.

Another takeaway: it’s not all about STEM. Although the scores used in these comparisons are based on mathematics, the successful school systems have competent programs in language skill, are, social studies and foreign languages. They have NOT treated their children like robots that need be only programmed to handle a physics experiment or a software program. This is another asinine idea that you get from American think tanks and thoughtless bloggers who shall go nameless.

Pope Francis Slams “Trickle Down”

Pope Francis Holds His Weekly General AudienceBy Peter Galuszka

In a sharp rebuke to traditional conservative economic thought, the leader of the world’s Roman Catholics says he wants the church to rethink its strategies towards addressing income inequality and poverty and shun “the idolatry of money” and “trickle down” philosophies that give the rich far too much influence.

Pope Francis outlined his thinking in a 50,000 word treatise titled “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”). The new Pope appears to be a dramatic change in Vatican leadership which has been dominated by theological conservatives since the mid-1960s.

He wrote in his piece: “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by the free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.

“This opinion, which has never been confirmed by facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

There’s no question the view, written by a man who spend much of his life working with the urban poor of Brazil, is a slap in the face of such contemporary conservative influences, notably Ronald Reagan, who posited in the 1980s that if governments cut taxes and regulation and left  the rich alone, the benefits would trickle down to the middle and lower classes.

Since then, the idea has become a mantra for conservatives around the world from Margaret Thatcher to Paul Ryan. It was cited as being part of the “End of History” when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. It is also hummed like a Hindu chant on this blog.

In Virginia, the benefits of “trickle down” are assumed to be God’s word among Republicans and Democrats alike. The theory is that business can only flourish in a low tax, low regulation and anti-labor union state. Somehow everyone benefits although as Pope Francis points out these ideas “have never been confirmed by facts.”

Globally, the fast spread of current capitalist thinking by high-speed information technology has created ever wider disparities between rich and poor.

The United States is still struggling to recover from the worst recession since the Great Depression. According to the New York Times, one result of the so-called “recovery” has been similar to the trend in the rest of the world –a small slice of the richer get richer to the detriment of others. The Times writes:

“The top 10 percent of earners took more than half of the country’s total income in 2012, the highest level recorded since the government began collecting the relevant data a century ago, according to an updated study by the prominent economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty.

“The top 1 percent took more than one-fifth of the income earned by Americans, one of the highest levels on record since 1913, when the government instituted an income tax.

“The figures underscore that even after the recession the country remains in a new Gilded Age, with income as concentrated as it was in the years that preceded the Depression of the 1930s, if not more so.”

It seems to be the case in Richmond, which is often painted on this blog as a wonderland of bike lanes, “New Urbanism styles,” “the creative class,” and lots of Millennials flocking in to enjoy its exquisite cultural amenities.

In truth, according to Style Weekly, about 50,000 of the city’s population of 208,000 live in poverty.  Although the minimum wage is $7.25, workers need to make $10.35 an hour to make ends meet, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study. One pilot workforce training project that served 550 Richmonders over the last three years found that their wages averaged $8.50 an hour. Jamison Manion, who administrates the program, likened the situation to “nothing, absolutely nothing. It’s like draining the ocean through a straw — when it’s raining.”

Pope Francis appears to pose a big change in contemporary Catholic thinking after decades of the status quo. He’s likely to further shake things up by making the ossified Church’s bureaucracy more decentralized, de-emphasizing the overplay on abortion and gay issues and giving women a stronger voice.

A big question is whether the Church is finally ahead of the curve instead of being constantly behind it. In the process, he’s making “Trickle Down”  sound “oh-so-1980s.”