Thursday, January 26, 2017

Trump and the USA in Transition


The Trump administration seems to have gotten off to a reasonably good start. It looks like all of Trump’s nominees for major Cabinet posts will be approved by the Senate despite nit-picking by the Democrats. It looks like Trump has put together a first class team of qualified, experienced people. Even long-time critics of Trump like the editors of the Wall Street Journal have had to admit that Trump has been surprisingly level headed in choosing his team.

The Democrats who oppose Senator Jeff Sessions, the nominee for Attorney General, have had to resort to calling this experienced jurist a “racist,” even though his record shows him to be just the opposite. If you want to talk about racism, does anyone believe that Geoffrey Holder or Loretta Lynch would have been nominated for Attorney General by Barack Obama if they had not been black.

Democrats also oppose Rex Tillerson’s nomination for Secretary of State because of his alleged ties with Russia while he served as CEO of energy giant Exxon. Can anyone seriously believe that the wealthy Tillerson, who could have stayed at Exxon forever, has anything to gain by being in bed with Vladimir Putin? Also, who ever objected to Barack Obama’s nomination of the relatively inexperienced Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State back in 2008?

So far the criticism of Trump has had nothing to do with what he has actually done since Election day. Opponents just don’t like the man and have to focus on his personality and his tweets and ignore the seriousness with which he has seemingly thrown himself into the difficult job of President. So what objections have been raised?

During the election campaign Trump’s frequent complaint that the coming election was “rigged led a debate moderator to ask him if he would support the outcome of the election.  Trump declined to answer the question and said that he would keep us in suspense. No matter what one thinks of his answer, no one can deny the shock and dismay that immediately erupted on the part of his opponents, both politicians and pundits. How could he say such a thing? How could he even decline to say whether he would accept the results of a Presidential election?

Now that he has won the election, the refusal of his opponents to accept the result represents not only the height of hypocrisy, but also a dangerous incitement to violence. In this country we have always enjoyed the tradition of a loyal opposition. We are allowed to dislike and oppose the measures and policies of our elected leaders. We are even allowed to dislike them personally. But when we call them illegitimate or claim that they won their election by nefarious or illegal means, we invite fanatical loonies on both extremes of the political spectrum to take the law into their hands.

Claims that Trump is illegitimate are really based on personal antipathy to him as well as to the cause he has come to represent. It is nonsense to say that he is illegitimate because he did not win the popular vote. Both he and Hillary Clinton played by the rules, and both of them fought to win a majority in the Electoral College. No one complained about the Electoral College when it seemed like Clinton was sure to win.

It is equally nonsensical to claim the Russian hackers who exposed nasty emails in the mailbox of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta influenced the outcome of the election. The revelation of an old videotape showing Trump engaging in “locker room” talk, had far greater impact. Nevertheless, in the campaign frenzy leading up to the election, I never met a single person whose mind was not made up. I never saw such passion on either side. 
It is especially dangerous when high-ranking politicians like Rep. John Lewis of Georgia call the President-elect illegitimate. It may just be hyperbole on his part but words have consequences. Didn’t President Obama and his staff claim that the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi was caused by an inflammatory video on the Internet?

Political commentators are also treading on dangerous ground when they attack the newly elected President on purely personal grounds. They don’t like the new President period. We know that. But now it is time for them to criticize or assess his actual performance.

We have become accustomed to the ravings of the left-wing media but even a conservative commentator like Bret Stephens of the Wall St. Journal has become rabid in his dislike of Trump. In his last two weekly columns he has gone over the top in portraying Trump as some kind of evil monster, and totally ignored the fact that this so-called inexperienced buffoon has assembled a really first-rate team of Cabinet advisers. He picked them but they, from Senator Jeff Sessions to Exxon CEO Tillerson, have chosen to work with him.


Thursday, January 12, 2017

Remembering Patsy


My cousin Patricia Schultze  (Patsy) passed away on New Year’s Day. She was 73 years old and I can’t think of anyone in my family who had more hard knocks in their lives than Patsy. The last of these was the long bout with cancer that finally took her life. Nevertheless, with the help of a decent, loving, hard-working husband, Patsy seemed to transcend all the difficulties that life threw in her way.

I can honestly say that in the 70 odd years that I knew her I don’t think I ever met a cheerier or more optimistic person. Last summer she threw a kind of farewell party where I saw her children and grandchildren gather around her with heartfelt love and devotion. At the funeral Mass last Saturday l don’t think I ever saw so many people openly sobbing.

During the Mass the elderly pastor gave a very perceptive homily. He mentioned that he and Patsy were of the same generation, and that as children they learned the rudiments of their religious faith from the Baltimore Catechism.

This catechism drew its name from the third Plenary council of the American Catholic bishops held in 1891 in Baltimore.  The Bishops of that time were aware that the great numbers of Catholic immigrants flooding into America at that time were woefully ignorant of their faith. Actually, most of them were unable to even read or write in their own native language.

But their children all had brains and quickly picked up the language of their parent’s adopted country. Still, the American bishops believed that an easy to read American catechism was needed in the growing parochial school system. As a result, the Baltimore catechism used a brief question and answer format to drill basic truths into children’s memory banks. 
Children of Patsy’s generation and mine memorized many of the questions and answers in the catechism. By the time our children went to school memorization had gone out of fashion, but we had to memorize practically everything. We memorized the times tables in arithmetic. While my grandchildren count on their fingers or go through complex mental gymnastics, I can still instantly say that 9 times 9 equals 81, or 11 times 11 is 121. In geography we memorized the States and their capitols. I still know that Boise is the capitol of Idaho. In history we memorized the names of the Presidents as well as significant dates like 1492 and 1776. In High School we even memorized complicated geometric theorems. I still think we lost a lot when we gave up on memorization. Now we have to rely on Siri and Alexa while our own memory banks are filled with trivia.

Anyway, when memorization went out of fashion so too did the Baltimore catechism. However, in his homily the priest said something very profound that I had never thought of before. Anybody from our generation knows that the first question was “Why did God make you?” The answer that we all committed to memory was: “God made me to know, love, and serve him in this life…” The priest admitted that when he had memorized those words as a child, he had no idea what they meant. How could we? He said that you would have to lead a life before you could begin to understand the meaning of such a question.

Through all her trials my cousin Patsy led a life that would leave her surrounded by a loving husband, children, grand-children, family, and friends as she departed to be with her maker whom she had known, loved and served in so many ways.


Thursday, January 5, 2017

Pension Spiking in Connecticut

Former Connecticut State Senators, Coleman and Kane

“Pension Spiking” is the term used to describe the common practice whereby state and government employees contrive to boost their pensions in the last years of their employment. Since most public service employee pensions are “defined benefit” plans where the benefit is largely determined by the average of an employee’s highest three years pay, substantial increases in pay over the final three years of employment can lead to dramatic increases in retirement benefits.

Pension spiking has been going on for years throughout the country, but it has been raised to a new level here in Connecticut during the two terms of Democrat governor Dannell Malloy. In particular, by appointing a number of loyal Democrat legislators to judgeships or other high ranking positions in his administration, he has “spiked” their retirement benefits.

Legislators in Connecticut are considered part-time employees and only make about $30000 per year. However, they do participate in the State’s defined benefit pension plan.  So, if they serve in the legislature for 35 years, they could expect to receive 70% of their pay or about $21000 per year as a pension. Even though that may seem low, it compares favorably with what most of their constituents will get from Social Security.

But there is a pot of gold at the end of the legislator’s rainbow, especially if they have been a loyal Democrat in this “blue” state. If they can be promoted to a high paying job as an administration or a judge, they can “spike” their pension’s in just three years. One of Malloy’s first acts as Governor was to appoint an attorney friend and long-time legislator from his home town of Stamford to a six-figure job as his top legal advisor. Later, he became a judge on the State’s highest court.

Here is the most recent example. State Senator Eric Coleman resigned his post in the State Legislature just minutes before the new session opened yesterday. He is 65 years old and has served as a Senator from Bloomfield for the past 22 years. Before that he had served in the lower house for 11 years. His combined 33 years of service would have allowed him to retire on about $20000 per year or 66% of his $30000 legislator’s pay. 
But Coleman retired in expectation that he would receive an appointment to a $150000 judgeship that he could hold until the mandatory retirement age of 70. It must be a good expectation since he has not even been vetted by the legal board that is supposed to recommend judges. In just three years as a judge, Coleman’s average pay for pension purposes will be at least $150000. At age 70 this pension “spiking” will enable him to retire on 75% of $150000. At age 70 his retirement benefit will be about $112500 per year, $90000 more that he would have gotten by staying in the legislature. Although Coleman said he agonized over the decision, it was apparently a no-brainer. He said,

“As you might expect, serving in the legislature was one of the greatest honors of my life. I made a lot of good friends here…So it’s a very difficult decision, but I had discussions with the appropriate people, including my wife. I guess the ultimate conclusion is this was time.”

It certainly was a good move for him but it will add a couple of million dollars to the State’s pension liability. At 4% interest it will take about $2,250,000 to fund the $90000 annual increase in his retirement benefits due to “spiking.” The State’s pension liability grows and grows, and is now one of the largest items in Connecticut’s budget.

Spiking is a non-partisan issue. At the same time as Coleman resigned from the Senate, Republican Senator Rob Kane of Waterbury resigned to take a position as Republican state auditor. He hasn’t served in the Senate as long as Coleman but his new salary of about $150000 will also boost his eventual retirement benefit substantially.

This year the State faces a $1.5 Billion deficit and it will be forced to cut services more and more. Already cutbacks are being suggested for aid to cities and towns. Promises made to fund education, social services, and infrastructure improvement will have to be broken.

Only pension benefits will go untouched. I know that contractual obligations to public service unions are sacrosanct, but there is no contractual obligation to include legislators, judges, and high profile political appointees in the State’s pension plan. Their existing benefits could easily be frozen, and their future retirement benefits could be a combination of Social Security and a 401k type plan, the same combination that most of the rest of us have to rely on for retirement.

But as long as the Governor and the Legislature participate in the State’s Pension plan, there can be no reform. What incentive do they have to reform a plan that benefits them so much? All they have to do is bide their time until they reach the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.