Fewer Voters Blame Pres. Obama for Gas Prices

Personally, when I see a hyperpartisan political opponent of a sitting president prattle on about how he’s responsible for high gas prices, I generally roll my eyes. (Truth be told, I generally roll my eyes when hyperpartisan people say anything.) It just seems like there are a lot of factors — OPEC-related and the like — that are out of America’s hands (although President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL Pipeline likely won’t help matters). But according to a recent Washington Post article, fewer voters appear to be blaming the President for lofty costs at the pump:

Back in September 2005, gas prices surged to $2.90 per gallon across the country ($3.50 in today’s dollars), largely because Hurricane Katrina had shut down production across the Gulf of Mexico — an event that couldn’t plausibly be blamed on Bush. Yet 28 percent of Americans still blamed the president anyway. (Of course, one explanation is that voters were expressing discontent with the way the Bush administration handled the aftermath of Katrina.)

This time around, meanwhile, gas prices are even higher — the national average is now $3.74 per gallon — largely due to tight supplies and tensions between the United States and Iran (and the latter situation is something the White House actually is heavily involved with). Yet only 18 percent of Americans say the president’s responsible for pump prices. The number of Americans who are refusing to assign blame has jumped. Who knows? Perhaps after years of high gas prices a sense of fatalism has set in.

This jibes with political science research finding that, for the most part, a president’s re-election doesn’t hinge on the price of gasoline. Of course, that doesn’t mean that gas prices are meaningless — or that Obama can breathe easy about the situation. If spiking oil prices end up biting into economic growth, then the president’s prospects for re-election really would start sinking. As always, the economy matters a lot.

American Students Lack Basic Historical Knowledge

As a fan of history, and a strong believer that a key to progressing forward is a firm grasp of the past, this article in the Wall Street Journal concerns me. As a general plea, I’d just like to remind parents and teachers to take advantage of the wonderful resources we have in the state, including Conner Praire, the Indiana Historical Society, the Benjamin Harrison Home, the governmental and Civil War history in Corydon, etc.:

The results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed that U.S. schoolchildren have made little progress since 2006 in their understanding of key historical themes, including the basic principles of democracy and America’s role in the world.

Only 20% of U.S. fourth-graders and 17% of eighth-graders who took the 2010 history exam were "proficient" or "advanced," unchanged since the test was last administered in 2006. Proficient means students have a solid understanding of the material.

The news was even more dire in high school, where 12% of 12th-graders were proficient, unchanged since 2006. More than half of all seniors posted scores at the lowest achievement level, "below basic." While the nation’s fourth- and eighth-graders have seen a slight uptick in scores since the exam was first administered in 1994, 12th-graders haven’t.

One bright spot in the data was the performance of African-American and Hispanic students in fourth and eighth grades. The average score of Hispanic fourth-graders jumped to 198 last year, versus 175 in 1994, which helped shrink the gap with their white counterparts. In eighth grade, black students improved to 250 points in 2010 from 238 in 1994. At the fourth-grade level, the gap between Hispanic and white students was 39 points in 1994 and 26 points in 2010. In eighth grade, the black-white gap narrowed to 23 points in 2010 from 28 in 1994.

The overall lackluster performance is certain to revive the debate about whether history and other subjects, such as science and art, are being pushed out of the curriculum because of the focus on math and reading demanded under the No Child Left Behind federal education law. The federal law mandates that students be tested in math and reading.

Charting the Tax Cut Choices

The top issue — maybe the only issue besides that little continuing resolution thing to keep the federal government in business financially — of the lame duck session of Congress appears to be what to do about the expiring Bush era tax cuts.

The choices:

  • Extend all the cuts indefinitely (the GOP favorite)
  • Limit the indefinite extensions to incomes below $250,000 with those above the mark seeing a significant tax hike (President Obama’s preference)
  • A temporary extension (one to three years) across the board (the reported fallback position for Republicans)
  • The combo option — extend middle-income cuts indefinitely but limit the upper-income cuts to only a few years. It’s called decoupling and is the suggested backup plan for the Democrats
  • Do nothing and go home

Let’s hope the message sent by the voters last week was received by those serving in Washington and the final option does not become part of the mix.

Of the other four, which is most likely? My best guess (and it’s only a guess) is that decoupling might become a frequently used term. Your thoughts? 

Feds See Increase in Six-Figure Salaries During Recession

So your business may very well be feeling the pinch these days. In the federal government, however, it seems business, and salaries, are booming. USA Today recently examined the situation that has one Utah Congressman up in arms, saying "There’s no way to justify this to the American people. It’s ridiculous." The USA Today writes:

The number of federal workers earning six-figure salaries has exploded during the recession, according to a USA TODAY analysis of federal salary data.

Federal employees making salaries of $100,000 or more jumped from 14% to 19% of civil servants during the recession’s first 18 months — and that’s before overtime pay and bonuses are counted.

Federal workers are enjoying an extraordinary boom time — in pay and hiring — during a recession that has cost 7.3 million jobs in the private sector…

Key reasons for the boom in six-figure salaries:

Pay hikes. Then-president Bush recommended — and Congress approved — across-the-board raises of 3% in January 2008 and 3.9% in January 2009. President Obama has recommended 2% pay raises in January 2010, the smallest since 1975. Most federal workers also get longevity pay hikes — called steps — that average 1.5% per year.

New pay system. Congress created a new National Security Pay Scale for the Defense Department to reward merit, in addition to the across-the-board increases. The merit raises, which started in January 2008, were larger than expected and rewarded high-ranking employees. In October, Congress voted to end the new pay scale by 2012.

Paycaps eased. Many top civil servants are prohibited from making more than an agency’s leader. But if Congress lifts the boss’ salary, others get raises, too. When the Federal Aviation Administration chief’s salary rose, nearly 1,700 employees’ had their salaries lifted above $170,000, too.

In the article a government affairs director for the Federal Managers Association contends, "the federal workforce is highly paid because the government employs skilled people such as scientists, physicians and lawyers," adding that federal employees make 26% less than private workers for comparable jobs.

What do you think? Is this government spending careening out of control, or are these salary increases just?

Finland Schools Serving Up Educational Lessons

Finland has become a model for teachers across the globe hoping to learn about educational success. Attracting the best and brightest to the teaching profession is among the key benefits for the Scandinavian nation, which prides itself on rewarding those teachers with more autonomy. The Christian Science Monitor reports:

No single factor can explain the students’ strong showing. They grow up in a highly literate, bilingual society (Finnish and Swedish, with most learning English as well). Finns also enjoy strong governmental supports for parental leave, day care, and healthcare (in exchange for high taxes), which means that problems associated with poverty don’t show up at the schoolhouse door nearly as often as in the US.

One essential element, though, is the high caliber of Finland’s teaching corps, education leaders say. "We trust our teachers," says Reijo Laukkanen, head of international relations at the Finnish National Board of Education in Helsinki. "That is very important, and it’s not easy to realize in all countries – the culture of trust we have in Finland."

Since 1979, master’s degrees have been required for teaching in primary and secondary schools. And the profession is so popular – even with its moderate salaries – that only 10 to 15 percent of applicants make it into university teacher-education programs…

While many American teachers have been chafing under the accountability systems of the federal No Child Left Behind law in recent years, autonomy is a hallmark of the teaching profession in Finland. "There’s nobody who supervises if we follow [the curriculum]," says Marja Asikainen, a longtime English teacher at the Länsimäki School. "They trust us that we’ll follow it, and Finnish teachers are rather free … to do it in their own way."

Finnish teaching places a strong emphasis on helping students become independent thinkers. "We don’t want to give only ready answers," says Liisa Norvanto, a primary teacher at the school. "We want to teach them to explore their surroundings…. We try to teach them how to compare knowledge … and be critical."

O’Rourke Amuses Attendees at Economic Club Event

The Indianapolis Convention Center ballroom was filled to capacity yesterday afternoon as famed political satirist P.J. O’Rourke took the Economic Club of Indiana stage.

O’Rourke’s penchant for making people laugh, even during less than promising economic times, was not lost on the audience. The humorous tone was set early as one of O’Rourke’s more famous quotes was read by the emcee during his introduction: “Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys."

True to form, O’Rourke mixed humor with the expert analysis of someone who has studied politics and government for over 40 years – delving into controversial topics of spreading freedom through fighting and public education reform. He is known for poking fun at the absurdity found in all political ideologies, and remarked on former President George W. Bush as well as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He even riffed on the concept of democracy, noting that with daughters and dogs at home, dinner would likely consist of Fruit Loops and rotten meat if put to a vote.

To view the upcoming Economic Club of Indiana lunch event schedule, please visit its web site.

A New Day in America

A colleague told me as we walked into our office together, “Michael, you have a little extra bounce in your step today.” Yes, I do. I love a Presidential Inauguration Day. I enjoy soaking in the history, the formalities, the reflections of past inaugurations and speeches that today brings. For a Republic, it is hard to imagine a day more special than today.

From staying at Blair House, attending a church service, riding to the U.S. Capitol with the soon-to-be former President, the music, poetry and of course the oath of office and inaugural speech are all fascinating for this political junkie to watch.  Then to top it off, we watch the former President depart D.C. quietly as the new President takes a slow ride back to the White House for a grand parade in his honor.

For me, other than special moments with my family, the days that I always have that “extra bounce in my step” are Election Days, a Papal Conclave (which is the oldest ongoing method for choosing the leader of an institution), day of the Indianapolis 500 and Presidential Inauguration Day. These are special days and today will certainly be a day to remember.
Today, all of us — Democrat, Republican or Libertarian — should be optimistic. We should all be supportive of President Obama and truly wish him well as he leads us for the next four years. Let us not forget that we live in the most powerful nation on earth and we will watch another peaceful transfer of power between individuals of different political parties. History teaches us how rare this is.

Yes, today is a new day in America. Let’s ALL enjoy it.

Ohio Still Entangled in Lawsuits from Election — the 2004 Election

The Cincinnati Enquirer published an article last week claiming Ohio taxpayers are still "on the hook" for legal fees stemming from lawsuits against the state in the 2004 election. Yikes. It states there were 23 lawsuits against the former Secretary of State, with over $1 million still needed to settle seven of the suits.

All but one of the settled cases involved election law. That one, settled for $73,139, involved a business-records suit in which a Brown County truck driver sued because his Social Security number was posted on a state Web site.

Last week, the Ohio Controlling Board OK’d payment of the latest judgment, awarding five TV networks and the Associated Press $325,521 in attorneys’ fees and expenses from a 2004 case. The lawsuit challenged (former Sec. of State Ken) Blackwell’s order to block ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, Fox News and the AP from conducting exit polling within 100 feet of the polls on Election Day 2004.

Brunner, a Democrat, fired some of the outside counsel hired to defend those cases shortly after she took office in 2007. But 13 of the cases remain active in state and federal courts, including a lawsuit that challenged Bush’s narrow re-election.

Pretty brutal considering times are tough and taxpayers need all the breaks they can get. No word yet if anyone plans to sue the Bengals for having to endure their games this season.

Hat tip to our very own Glenn Harkness for the info.

Electoral Maps Through the Years: From W. H. Harrison to “W”

With the presidential election on the top of many of our minds, you might be thinking about the esteemed history of the American presidency. Provided your historic curiosity stops at 1840, you’ll find these maps to be great fun.

And if you’re like me, you likely won’t be able to sleep tonight without knowing how the Know-Nothing Party fared in 1856. Turns out, not well.

But that’s alright; don’t feel too badly for Mr. Millard Fillmore. At least he was able to serve as president at some point. And hey, his fictional high school was the worthy home of the "Head of the Class" gang, featuring (and this is from memory) Mr. Moore, Dennis Blunden, Arvid Engen and sassy Maria … not to mention Eric, Simone and Jawaharlal. Yes! (Not sure what’s sadder — the fact that I know that or the pride I take in knowing it.)

Hat tip to Chamber marketing technology guru Glenn Harkness for passing the map site along.

Bush Signs Great Lakes Compact

Obviously, the Great Lakes Compact has been far from the front page of most newspapers lately. However, the Chamber-supported bill that was put forth by bipartisan efforts in eight states and two Canadian provinces is a big deal for the Midwest, and is now officially a law.

Negotiations leading to the compact began in the late 1990s after an Ontario consulting firm obtained a provincial permit to ship 158 million gallons of Lake Superior water to Asia each year.

It later was withdrawn, but the case sent a shudder through the region and led the governors to investigate whether they had sufficient legal authority to reject similar attempts.

Supporters noted a United Nations estimate that by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population would lack ready access to clean, fresh water.

The compact drew bipartisan support and was endorsed by presidential nominees Barack Obama and John McCain, as well as business and environmental groups in the region.

In this year’s state legislature, the passage of SB 45 made Indiana the first state to adopt the Great Lakes Compact and implemenation language. Prior to the session, the Chamber, in cooperation with environmental interest groups, hosted the Indianapolis public meeting on the compact. In testimony, the Indiana Chamber expressed its support for the bill, noting that nearly 20% of the world’s fresh water is contained in the Great Lakes and that we must do what we can to preserve and protect this valuable resource that is critical to many Indiana businesses, industries and residents.