Tuesday, March 30, 2010

What Say You?

HARBESON: Readers writing about my writing

>>SOUTHERN INDIANA — I just returned from Bristol, Tenn., where I watched fast, loud, colorful cars turn left 3,200 times. This has left me feeling dizzy, so I’ve decided to let my readers do the talking today while I clear my head.

First, this letter from Dave: “Compliments on your column in The Evening News last evening. It has always amazed me when I hear people say, ‘it won’t cost us anything because it is a government grant.’ People must someday realize that government has no money — they use the people’s money, it is called taxes. Never did understand why people can’t figure this out. Good luck and keep writing. I enjoy reading, well at least most of the time.”

A reader in Sellersburg wrote a couple of times after becoming quite upset at Sellersburg officials forcibly annexing his property. Then he sent this: “Hello Ms. Harbeson, … I feel I owe you an apology for venting my frustrations to someone I don’t even know. It’s just that after reading your past columns, I feel we’re riding on the same train when it comes to government, whether it be big or small. So please accept my apology and keep on writing to keep them honest and I’ll keep on reading.”

He didn’t need to apologize. I understand his frustration, so if it helps to write me, then I’m glad to do it for him and anyone else out there. So vent away!

After my column concerning the city of Jeffersonville’s bench advertising ordinance, I heard from the family who was directly harmed by this government action.

Sue wrote: “... We have planned for 15 years to retire soon now on partly what the bench business would have comfortably supplemented to our income. Not so now. We surely will now work more years than intended …”

How rotten is this? A family who was trying to be financially responsible and plan for later years now has to completely alter retirement plans. I guess the most valuable lesson here is to be very careful when planning your financial future, study your plans and see how susceptible they may be to controlling government officials.

Take a look at this lovely letter from Larry: “I’ve never really liked newspapers or ‘journalist.’ This Christmas my in-laws got us a subscription to The Evening News as a present. I was less than thrilled. So today, I actually read it — yours was the first real opinion piece I’ve ever read. I’m amazed, I’m shocked, I really liked it! I even agreed with most of it, really all of it. I guess I’ll have to thank my in-laws after all, and I can look forward to reading your column. Thanks!”

That was in January, so by now I’ve probably said something Larry’s disagreed with, therefore I can’t be sure he’s still so pleased. If not, I hope he doesn’t blame it on the in-laws.

And finally, this from David: “Ms. Harbeson, I wanted to take a moment and let you know how much I enjoy your writings on NewsandTribune.com. Like most people I read, I don’t always agree, but most always find it leads to thought.

“Your article on Mr. Bayh was spot on. I won’t tell you which way I tend to lean, left or right. I have seen politics from the local, state and national level. I think each party wants so much to demonize the other side ... I just wanted to take a moment and say thanks for writing, please don’t stop.”

And I would like to say the same, thanks for writing and please don’t stop.

SIGLINE— Sellersburg resident Debbie Harbeson likes turning left if it means she has the chance to run a government control-freak up against the wall.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Is Ethics in Government Possible?

HARBESON: Examining an ethical dilemma

>>SOUTHERN INDIANA — As I study political behavior, I’m always fascinated when an Indiana legislative session is about to end. The inevitable games and maneuvers that are thrown into the mix certainly illustrate how the system works.

My favorite interaction this year was when the Republicans were mad at the Democratic Speaker of the House for his premature gavel-beating that left them unsatisfied, and the Democrats were mad at the Republicans for holding legislation “hostage.” (Hostage must be the new go-to word when politicians want to focus attention on a particular cause.)

This behavior is typical of course, but did you notice that just before this customary end of session free-for-all, there was actually a period of peace among these fine warriors? Yes, the entire legislature found themselves in complete agreement over one of the bills running the gauntlet.

Not a single person in either chamber voted no on this bill. They celebrated their bipartisanship and I heard some were even making out in the halls. But I think that was just a rumor.

So what led to such a love-in? A bill for revisions to the current ethics law.

When a law is more about preserving the system than anything else you will almost always find both parties in agreement. Ethics laws can pass easily when things are looking bad for government as a revered system of order because politicians understand that, above all else, they must maintain the system that provides the power.

See, since the economy has tanked, state government has less money to spread around to keep people happy. The risk of discontent rises when this happens and it becomes vitally important to create a distraction so they use laws like these to make people feel better about government.

To keep playing the game, they need to pull your attention away from a deeper analysis of the system and instead focus on how “good” all the people are who have chosen to grab the reins of power. Ethics laws are great because they help maintain the illusion that the system has a moral foundation.

But you see how ridiculous it is when you start digging into the details of these ethics laws. For example, they changed the lobbyist reporting requirement for gifts and entertainment to legislators from $100 to $50. So, last year not reporting $101 was unethical but next year $51 is the magical ethical benchmark.

But if we’re going to talk about ethics, I don’t understand why these particular numbers and all the other related details painstakingly written in the code are even necessary. I mean, why should a legislator ever accept lobbyist gifts? Buy your own darn dinner, drinks and tickets to sporting events. This kind of basic ethical thinking is really not that difficult is it?

If their intent was to maintain the illusion that ethical behavior can occur in our system, it backfired on me because I’m right back to the realization that the system itself is unethical.

It doesn’t matter to me to learn of these gifts in $50 increments rather than $100, what matters is that my study of the system has shown it does not live up to any ethical behavior we value in our private lives. Ethical people don’t initiate force in normal everyday interactions, so why is it suddenly OK to do so if you’re inside a government system?

Have you ever stopped to think about the ethics of the system itself? If not, I encourage you to do so, if for no other reason than you know those in power don’t want you to do that.

SIGLINE— Sellersburg resident Debbie Harbeson successfully operates under strict ethical guidelines for accepting gifts from readers. But that’s probably because no one’s actually given her anything yet.

(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Special Deal: Three Columns in one Tidy Package

COLUMN NOTES: When possible, I'm linking to articles that give more information on a topic for anyone who wants it. However, often there are several articles as a story progresses so you can always search the newspaper's website to get other articles.

HARBESON: It’s three, three, three columns in one

JEFFERSONVILLE — For many people, spring is a time to work on huge cleaning jobs. Not me though. I’d rather just throw stuff out —it’s much easier. The point is always to avoid work, which is why I’ve decided to clean out my files and throw three topics I’ve been meaning to write about into one column.

Clark County Airport taxing authority

Keeping with the theme of throwing useless things out, Clark County definitely needs to toss the idea of adding yet another layer of government with the ability to take money by force.

Really now, how many Clark County residents think we need to give another group of people the power to take other people’s money to do what THEY think is important? The only time most of us would think this is a good idea would be after flying at too high an altitude in an unpressurized aircraft.

Besides, we’re already funding various airport operations through federal grants and matching funds. If the airport is a solid business idea, then they should be able to figure out how to fly on their own.

I’m certainly not against flying or the Clark County airport. As a matter of fact, our son earned his private pilot’s license there when he was 17. I remember this well because we completely transferred roles the day he took me for a ride in a tiny two-person plane.

I was like a child, excitedly pointing out features like our house and the mall. He smiled, rolled his eyes and said, “Yeah, that’s really cool mom.”

So, our family has a fond connection with the airport, but that doesn’t mean I think other people should be forced to subsidize it even more than they are now.

The airport board says they want a “constant, consistent, dependable” stream of funds. Well gee, don’t we all? Airport officials need to concentrate on finding creative ways to run the business rather than taking funds from their neighbors.

Let’s not add to the local tax messes we already need to clean up.

Haven House and the homeless

I’ve been reading with renewed interest about the changes that appear to be happening regarding the homeless. It’s very encouraging to see several organizations getting involved now. These are all organizations I’ve heard of before and as far as I know they are professionally managed and operated.

Most encouraging of all is that they actually seem to be cooperating with each other as they work to see what can be done to improve the way this issue is handled. I know this issue is strongly tied to and likely even caused by horrendous government intervention in many areas, but it’s very encouraging to see the local homeless issue finally being spring-cleaned of silly territorial and personal power plays.

Clarksville Town employees living rent-free

Speaking of homelessness and spring cleaning, maybe we can all learn from the Clarksville Town Council. Council members have somehow gotten their government hands on several homes and decided to let town employees live there rent-free. Apparently all they have to do is dust and sweep once in a while.

We’re told the town gives these employees 1099 tax forms for the fair market value so I guess this benefit is counted as taxable income. If their salary is reduced in these instances, then I guess it works as a temporary situation.

However, I don’t understand why the town should be holding onto real estate and playing landlord. It’s time for town officials to start their spring cleaning by actively working to sell the extra property they have found themselves hoarding.

Sellersburg resident Debbie Harbeson loves to throw useless things out but swears it was a mistake that year her husband ended up on the curb.

(Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Teacher Accountability and Standardized Testing

COLUMN NOTES: I wrote this column in the hopes that some readers, especially teachers, might respond. And there are quite a few comments on the newspaper's website, which you can read here.

HARBESON: Teachers have a valid complaint ... sort of

I’ve noticed that whenever the topic of teacher accountability arises, teachers are quick to offer many reasons as to why yearly student testing is not a good way to evaluate teacher competency. Most often, we are told that it’s not fair to make teachers accountable to how their students score on a test because there are so many variables that can get in the way of teaching. I actually agree with much of what the teachers say.

Yet when I hear these comments, it sounds like teachers don’t want to be held accountable for doing what they say they can do — teach. Many people, for example middle managers, are accountable for others’ job performance, even when there may be variables that are outside of their control, so why should teachers be any different when asked to account for the work they are paid to do? Is education really so different that professionals in this field cannot be expected to be held to number-oriented standards like those in many other jobs?

It is particularly important that government school teachers do so because their pay comes directly from compulsion. In a free market, the consumer can use any means to decide that a teacher is not working out and stop paying him. But we are not able to do that with the government schools. The resistance to testing as a means of judging competency confuses me because teachers say they are disrespected as professionals and tell us that it takes lots of specialized training to teach children.

Doesn’t professionalism imply an ability to be effective despite the uncontrolled variables? In addition, their insistence that one have the proper degrees and certificates certainly implies a confidence in testing.

How can teachers complain about not being respected and at the same time tell us we can’t hold them accountable by using the same means they do to restrict entry into their profession? We also hear how teachers feel underpaid. How can teachers complain about not being paid enough and at the same time not want to be held accountable in a way that could help prove he or she deserves more pay?

But again, what I hear many teachers saying at this point is that it’s just not that simple. Even after all of this training and certification, teachers tell us that it’s really not completely up to them whether a child learns what he or she needs to learn in their class to pass the standardized test. They say there are so many other variables and issues that can skew the outcome such as student motivation.

I agree. Student motivation is a huge problem in the schools. Lots of time and money is spent on finding the most effective — and extremely manipulative — means to get kids to learn exactly what the adults want them to learn, at the exact time the adults want them to learn it. As long as we continue to make such arbitrary demands on the learner, completely ignoring individual desires and needs, and as long as we continue to think of education as forcing required data into the kids’ brains, student motivation will be a problem.

So in the end I have to take the teacher’s side. They are exactly right when they point out that student learning is dependent on many variables that go way deeper than the ability of the teacher in the classroom. Of course, no amount of testing or money paid to teachers will solve those issues the teachers correctly identify, so now what? I’d start by separating education from government but I wonder if teachers would agree.

Sellersburg resident Debbie Harbeson is putting her big toe into the pool and testing out the waters of the education establishment.

(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Congratulations To Senator Evan Bayh

Harbeson: Bayh's Announcement is no Big Surprise

I’m not sure why Senator Bayh’s announcement that he will not run again is big news. It’s just another example of a politician doing what’s best for the politician. He’s used government for years to develop his image and doesn’t want to risk losing it if the political climate moves against decades-long incumbents. Sure, he can say he’s confident he would be re-elected, but by getting out now, he doesn’t have to be accountable.

I was interested when he said he’s an “executive at heart” and values his “independence.” Isn’t this how we all feel? We all claim independence and are “executives at heart” because we naturally want control over our own lives.

The difference is that most of us concentrate on pursuing these desires on an individual level, allowing others to do the same. We don’t feel the need to develop a career controlling other people. There are even rumblings that Bayh’s desire for control even played a part in who will take his place as the Democratic candidate since his announcement fell so close to the filing deadline.

Bayh seems most upset over what he considers to be too much partisanship in Congress. He’s pretending that something different is happening right now, but it’s nothing new. It’s just that he’s not getting what he wants so it’s a nice excuse.

He also laments the unwillingness to compromise. I’ve never understood why compromise is considered a value to worship under the umbrella of government force. Taking pride in compromise and assuming it’s the preferred action implies that it’s wrong to take a stand and hold that stand; that it’s somehow wrong to have clearly defined principles (not that I think anyone in government has clearly defined principles).

In reality, the kinds of compromises politicians like Bayh make are compromises that by their very nature force those who disagree to comply. The two parties pat themselves on the back for their grand ability to compromise, completely ignoring how their actions affect people who didn’t want to be a part of their deal. Compromise is always assumed to be a good thing and no one ever talks about how political compromises always favor the growth and perpetuation of the system, the very system Bayh now denounces.

Think of it like this: There’s a car for sale at a local lot. One salesman wants to sell it for $20,000 and the other wants to sell it for $24,000 so they compromise with each other and price it at $22,000. Then they grab you off the street and happily inform you that through their amazing ability to work together and compromise, they’ve decided you’re going to buy this car for $22,000. They totally ignore the fact that you don’t want to buy a car. You’re supposed to be happy they were able to reach a compromise with each other, but buying the car is non-negotiable.

But enough about Bayh’s past life. I’m glad he’s moving on. In fact, I want to congratulate him for finally figuring out that government really doesn’t work so well. I’m glad he’s finally joining those of us who also do not love Congress.

I would like to welcome him to the private sector. At least it sounds like that’s where he plans to go, so I’m excited to see what Bayh will do next. Where will his “executive nature” and independence lead him? Will he ignore government and work to develop solutions through cooperation and persuasion, in a voluntary manner and not through force backed up by threats of violence? I can’t wait to find out.

Sellersburg resident Debbie Harbeson is irritated at her husband’s resistance to the compromise she made with a friend on how long he should rub her feet each night.