Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

You can pay me now or pay me later

March 31, 2014

There is nothing more important to a community than its hospital. Running medical institutions well is no easy job. Dave Phelps at Berkshire Health Systems is tough enough to do it right. You sure can’t blame him for not picking up the massive debt from the North Adams debacle. The one thing his board should and will insist upon is fiscal prudence. It’s tempting to look for bad guys in all of this, but there’s really no point engaging in the blame game. Unfortunately, it has already started.

Most of us understand just how devastating the collapse of North Adams Regional Hospital has been for residents of the town. It just takes a few minutes for a heart attack to do its worst and someone in the throes of cardiac arrest should not have to travel for 40 minutes to get to the nearest hospital. We in Great Barrington are fortunate to both have a hospital that services our community with a wide range of medical options and to have worked out a sharing relationship with the mother hospital.

Deval Patrick is an unusual politician. He really cares and he has the intellectual, hands-on capacity to get things done. Clearly, he has been doing whatever he can to make sure that the people of North County have decent health care. Everyone seems to be on board in the effort and when that happens, something positive is bound to occur. Nature certainly does abhor a vacuum and I simply can’t believe that something good won’t come from this. Sometimes you need a crisis to find a solution. In the meantime, I truly feel for all those people who, at least for now, are out of jobs. It’s easy enough for all of us to put ourselves in their places. It’s a catastrophe.

There is a huge push on to bring New York City train service to Berkshire County. Put me at the head of the line that thinks it is a terrific idea. We are a recreational-vacation community and institutions like Tanglewood and Jacob’s Pillow could only benefit from this. The more they benefit, the better off we all are. However, nothing comes without a price. We are talking more and more about high speed rail lines. The faster the trains go, the more likely it is that our Berkshires will become a commuting, bedroom community. So this is a pretty good example of what we might call the law of unanticipated consequences. Remember that we have already priced out many of our young people who just can’t afford to buy locally. The genie is out of the bottle and there is no getting her back in.

Every move forward brings with it new challenges and it is usually better to anticipate them before they arrive than to play catch up later on. The recent explosion of the two buildings in New York City should have us all thinking about the maintenance of our infrastructure. The pipes that carried gas to those two New York buildings were over 60 years old. There are similar explosions waiting to happen all over New York. As the guy on television used to say, “You can pay me now or pay me later.”

When the Great Barrington wise men choose to dig up our sewer pipes to stay ahead of the flow, they knew what they were doing. Very few of us gave them an “attaboy” for their work. Most people don’t want an increase in taxes or wish to see their streets torn up or to be inconvenienced but hey, you really can pay me now or later. Sometimes “later” has some terrible consequences. I remember when the Schoharie Bridge collapsed and people were killed, we started to get serious about our infrastructure. Let’s hope that we don’t have to wait for another tragedy to remember what’s important.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 3/29/14


Gambling is hardly the way to go

March 28, 2014

It would appear that New Yorkers want to gamble. They flock to New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts to seek their fortunes. Some of them use illegal bookmakers to place their bets. They play the lotteries and bet on sports. They spend millions of dollars in the hope of scoring big.

Since politicians don’t like to raise taxes, they are always looking for other ways to raise the necessary revenues to fund the all-too-often bloated state government. Governor Cuomo has advocated bringing gambling casinos to upstate New York. This is a target area for the governor who knows that the upstate economy is in a bad way. So, among other ideas is the awarding of casino licenses to compete with the surrounding states. It would appear that for the governor and others, this is a double win. New York gets to keep the tax money and the upstate economy grows.

Naturally, not everyone thinks this is such a great idea. There are those, for instance, who believe that the government has no business catering to the sometimes addictive gambling behavior of many people who can’t afford to lose the milk money. Others believe that despite the promises of all those jobs, many of the positions will just pay the minimum wage and a lot of the people who staff the casinos will actually be imported. While some people believe the surrounding businesses will benefit, skeptics argue that in other places like Atlantic City, the casinos have not helped other businesses in the area. That’s because the casinos are self-contained operations and people don’t venture outside.

Of course, some people who live in the areas that have been designated for gambling parlors are not happy. Hey, I wouldn’t want one in my neighborhood, in my beautiful small town. You’d have to supplement your police force. You’d need to put more money into your roads and infrastructure, but most of all, the character of your community would change.
I have a theory that the places that will end up adopting the casinos are some of our most at-risk communities. Some of them are already beset with crime. Others will do anything to bring in even marginal employment. Not so for other cities and towns that want nothing to do with gambling.

There is a major fight going on in the beautiful little city of Saratoga Springs. The people there have said they don’t want a casino despite the fact that they already cater to betting with some of the most famous horse racing in the world. Unlike Massachusetts where communities get to vote on whether or not to authorize a casino, New York disgracefully doesn’t allow the people to make that choice. That is not just wrong, it’s undemocratic. In the case of Saratoga Springs, the people voted against the constitutional amendment that authorized casinos. Despite that fact and the clearly expressed opposition to the casinos, there are organized interests that would shove the casino down the unreceptive throats of the citizens there.

Since New York City will have to wait for casinos, some regions as close to the city as possible are putting their gambling oars in the water. The places that most New Yorkers seem to agree would profit most from gambling casinos are the old borscht belt hotels in the Catskills. But even in the once thriving summer communities, there will be groups who oppose the gambling palaces on the basis of morality and character of community issues.

The idea of funding the government through gambling has its limitations. Instead, maybe we should stop spending on things like multiple school districts and politicians’ self-serving projects and raise taxes on the very rich to properly and fairly provide needed services. Gambling is hardly the way to go.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 3/24/14

A poke here, a poke there and dessert

March 24, 2014

I recently completed my annual urology get together with my friend and urologist, Dr. Hugh Fisher. In the course of the visit, we got to talking about an innovation that someone should have thought of and implemented a lot earlier then, well, now.

Many men have at one time or another experienced an elevated PSA reading and/or an inconclusive “digital” examination that has resulted in the inevitable biopsy. In this case, a prostate biopsy involves passing a needle through the skin and into the prostate itself.

Sometimes the urologist takes eight “snips” for biopsy and sometimes 12. Sometimes they work with a kind of anesthesia that dulls the pain and sometimes they do not.

I have been through the process twice.

The problem, unfortunately, is that it can be hit or miss. They stick the needle in a dozen times looking for cancer.

Cancer, of course, can be anywhere in the prostate and if the biopsy needle doesn’t happen to find where the cancer is, they will have a few choices, one of which is to do it again (ouch, ouch) or to abandon the effort. In other words, up to now the examination has been far from perfect.

Now, however, a quantum leap has occurred.

Albany Med is one of the few places that employs Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to assist with the placement of the needle. The process is known as MRI ultrasound fusion biopsy. The urologists and the radiologists have to work together to make this happen and the chances of finding any suspicious bumps or a possible cancer site are now much improved.

It has taken some time to get here but as one who has gone through the process (all was well) twice, I can only say, good stuff.

On a more pleasant subject, there’s a new restaurant at the top of Railroad Street in Great Barrington where Pearls and Fiori used to be. We went to try Mario’s Tuscany Grill and Bar last Saturday night and we couldn’t believe it.

The line was out the door. We soon found out why.

This place is absolutely extraordinary. It’s been advertised as an Italian food place but this is not a pizza joint. The pasta was perfect. The seafood was perfect. The deserts were just as good, the ambiance is pretty much the same as it used to be under previous proprietors.

Mario’s Tuscany Grill prices are moderate, not expensive and not cheap. Our friend Bonnie wanted to eat out on Tuesday night so went back and the food was just as good as it had been the previous Saturday.

The owners of Mario’s Tuscany Grill are brothers, Harry and Sonny Gutic. For 13 years, they’ve run a restaurant of the same name in Winsted, Conn. where they were approached by Steve Picheny, who owns the building here in Great Barrington.

These people are pros. The food came out relatively fast for this kind of restaurant. The wait staff was superb. I asked for a club soda with a hint of cranberry juice and I got just what I asked for. Roselle had a beautiful Chicken Florentine soup (not too salty) and a spinach salad. I had a salmon dish that fit very nicely into my Weight Watchers program.

On Saturday, we shared an incredible dessert called Portufo. It was as good as anything we’ve ever tasted. That did not fit into my Weight Watchers plan. Luckily I had hoarded enough points to get in under the daily wire.

Brother Sonny says he is very happy with the way the new restaurant has been received. He reports great feedback from customers and reminds us that when the weather gets better, there will be outside dining. We are so lucky to have so many great restaurants in Great Barrington.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 3/24/14

It’s time to allow doctors to help the suffering

March 18, 2014

It takes New York state government a long time before it does the right thing. How come it took so long to even consider a sensible medical marijuana bill that would allow people in great pain and/or the last stages of life to use what is basically a medicinal aid to alleviate their suffering? We know it works. Other states allow it but New York government is old and moribund and filled with people who just say no to everything without thinking things through. We do have some progressive thinkers who are trying to do the right thing, like the chairman of the New York State Assembly Health Committee, Richard Gottfried. Once the youngest member of the Legislature, Gottfried, like Moses, risks being denied entry into the promised land of medical marijuana reform.

Of course, it doesn’t stop there. There is another extension of the relief of suffering concept that is even more demanding — the idea that when someone wants to die with dignity on their own terms, they should be allowed to do so with the assistance of a physician. We all recognize that the end, for some, is filled with pain and the body’s organs are shutting down. Some people are anxious to pass on. Life for them is just so much pain and misery. They want to go and our old-line, conservative forces just are not allowing it to happen. Years ago I talked to a doctor who is himself, long gone. He frankly admitted that there were doctors who had been helping suffering patients to depart for years. The problem, of course, is that in assisting, these heroes put themselves at tremendous risk with the law.

We all know that there are lots of ways to commit suicide. Books like “Final Exit” lay it all out. But our physicians, who are all about alleviation of pain, are not allowed to do what they could do best. Obviously, we can put rules in place to protect those who want to end their lives. You can have more than one doctor signing off. You can have mental health professionals declare that the person seeking ultimate relief knows what he or she is doing. You can refer to end of life signed orders from the patient. You can have the children signing off and, speaking of the children, you might even have a public advocate of some sort ensuring that there is no self-serving motive on the part of any heirs to the estate of the deceased.

Other states like Oregon have passed this legislation and it seems to be working quite well. Frankly, Oregon is a better state than New York. They have more progressive thinkers. They don’t have the same old, same old class of professional politicians who keep on doing it the old way, afraid of religious institutions that may get in the way.

One of the best reasons for sensibly implementing term limits in New York is that we might finally do away with the old pols club. Then our legislators may stop thinking about themselves and start thinking about what is good for the people including those who are suffering and in pain.

Come on now, let’s consider who these politicians are. Many of them are just like you and me. They know what’s right. In their heart of hearts and mind of minds, they know what they would want for themselves or their parents, but they also understand that there are political consequences associated with doing the right thing. That, of course, is what is wrong with our politics. We are populated with self-serving, self-protecting politicians who think of themselves first and the rest of us second. It is as if they were stuck in cement. Just one more reason most of us would vote for term limits. It’s time to move on by allowing doctors to help the suffering.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 3/17/14

West Stockbridge has a tasty trend happening

March 17, 2014

I love the town of West Stockbridge. Like nearby Hudson, N.Y., the little town is reinventing itself before our very eyes.

There is the fabulous eatery, Rouge, which is often crowded and filled with locals and not-so-locals. Then there is the wonderful Public Market where I stop, usually every day. Everyone goes there, including our governor who I hope becomes president some day.

Don McGrory has a great oriental carpet shop. And right next door, Don’s wife, Robin Greeson, has Equator. If you’re lucky, you just might get Don, one of the best musicians around, to play some tunes for you. Just around the corner is Baldwin’s hardware where everyone is treated well and right down from there is the great Hotchkiss Mobiles store.

The latest addition is No. 6 Depot, which we’ve been hearing about but finally got to visit. Roselle and I were blown away. The place has that West Stockbridge spirit. It has a lot of space and serves both breakfast and lunch and Friday dinners and has events like an occasional Tango night.

For the team of Lisa Landry and Flavio Lichtenthal, No. 6 is a natural evolution from all they have done. Flavio is a true coffee maven. He imports beans from all over the world with an eye toward the most ethical standards of the industry.

Unlike so many other coffee people, Flavio roasts the beans himself and mixes them to exacting proportions. Flavio’s parents fled Europe during the second World War as Jewish refugees and ended up in Argentina. Then they moved to New York. He did a year at New Paltz, but then began to ply his career in New York. He started restaurant work at some very famous places in Manhattan and Brooklyn. He and Lisa fell in love with the Berkshires just like so many of us do and Flavio worked in different places, mainly at Gould Farm where he did the cooking. He was there for more than 10 years when he and Lisa started No. 6 Depot.

Flavio met Lisa at a restaurant where he was helping out. She had just returned from Italy where she was a translator. Lisa majored in business, so it is not surprising that the two started to wholesale their coffee to some of the best — and I do mean the best — restaurants in the area and beyond. We are talking about Café Adam, the Prairie Whale and Local 111 to just name a few. The couple has two kids, Sebastian and Paolo, who go to local schools.

Flavio and Lisa are committed to a community dining experience. If they have the time, they get to everyone in the place and make them feel welcome. Their spirit is infectious. When we were there last week, sooner or later everybody seemed to be talking to everyone else.

The food and baked goods are terrific. The service is prompt and hospitable and everyone seems to be smiling. Like Lenox and Great Barrington’s fabulous Haven, you place your order and they bring your meal to your table. Our food was terrific. I had my oatmeal and egg with a ton of fruit on it. The coffee was as good as advertized. Flavio has a 1966 Probat machine which is labor intensive but which he loves. Experts also will recognize his equally labor intensive Victorio Arduino espresso machine. Flavio says that he couldn’t use them in New York but that they are perfect in West Stockbridge, which has less pressure.

Flavio raves about his chef, Juanito, who is famous for his Friday night stews. The only night they serve dinner is Friday and there is almost always a Friday night event like Tango night.

Good things are happening in West Stockbridge. I can guarantee that you will love No. 6. Go, and tell them Alan sent you.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 3/17/14

Each side needs to give a little to end charter school war

March 11, 2014

The charter school movement in New York was based on the premise that New York’s schools were a mess and there had to be a better way. A few very wealthy folks decided that they could achieve results if they sponsored alternative public schools that didn’t have to adhere to the rules of the other, older public schools. After all, the rich had a choice. They could send their kids to exclusive private schools but poorer folks didn’t have that opportunity. The charterists argued that results were not possible under what they considered to be the mired and moribund educational bureaucracy. That bureaucracy operated under rules that had been developed with a lot of influence by the New York teachers unions, whose job it was to fight for the needs of their members. As a result of these rules, teachers who should have been fired often weren’t because they had tenure. Since most teachers are dedicated and decent people, that made some sense. The unions have always argued that it was possible to fire teachers and there were mechanisms for doing so, but the people running the schools just didn’t follow the rules.

Charter schools have longer hours than the old public schools and have much more freedom to move personnel around. In some, but not all, cases they have achieved better results than some, but not all, public schools. Some charter schools were established by people who were thinking more about themselves than the students they purported to serve. Some of the people heading these organizations are making a lot of money. Sound familiar? As a result, some charters have been closed down by the state authorities monitoring their operations.

When the people of New York City elected Mayor Bill de Blasio, they knew they were choosing a man who had deep reservations about charter schools. He believed, as I do, that you had to reform the schools so that every child was included, not just the few who were lucky enough to win the lottery to get in. He also took great exception to what is called “co-location,” a plan in which charter schools and the older public schools shared the same buildings. Not only do some students fail to gain entrance to charter schools, they have to watch the ones that did parade past them every day. Finally, public schools have to take everyone no matter what stage of emotional and intellectual development. There are charter schools that will not, for example, accept students with disabilities. Traditional public schools have to. Some see this to be “cherry picking” the students who can be successful with less work.

Governor Cuomo has entered the fray telling charter school people that he would use the state to stop the mayor’s plans to reform the charter school process. A few unkind people have actually suggested that Cuomo, who has upward of thirty million dollars in his campaign accounts, was playing to those rich folks who were behind the charter school movement. The blowback from the charterists was so great that de Blasio seems to be taking a few steps backward in his efforts to temper the charter movement.

While there is a war going on over charters it should be remembered that they were formed to set examples for the older schools. In fact, there is now a fierce war that just sets student against student and parent against parent. That’s just wrong. De Blasio has ties to the unions but it sounds to me like his heart is in the right place. On the other hand, to make this all right, each side will have to give a little. Let the old public schools have some of the same easier rules that the charters have and the same incentives to do well. Then maybe the wars will come to an end.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 3/10/14

Not the time for nuclear confrontation

March 10, 2014

The only real thing you have to know about Vladimir Putin is that at heart, he is a KGB colonel. He doesn’t particularly care what you think about him. The only thing that KGB colonels, of the Putin style, care about is power and how to use it. Look, there is no Soviet Union. Theoretically, it’s gone. But is it? Let’s take a look and see.

Russia has always been headed by strong men and women. You can call these people dictators and you can call the people who live in the country “strong man dependent.” Russia has no real history of democracy or balanced government. If Barack Obama wants to do something, he has to get it through two houses of Congress, including a Republican House of Representatives (otherwise known as the “Land of No”). If Putin wants to do something, he does it.

Let’s face it — the last thing the Russians want is to be perceived as a humiliated nation. On the other hand, polling data does not show widespread support for a war over Ukraine. If you could look into Putin’s brain, you would find a man who wants to give Russia a shot in the arm. He needs the support of the people. From that perspective, his moves in Ukraine are perfectly understandable. Nikita Khrushchev gave Crimea back to his native Ukraine but, of course, the Russians were allowed to keep their Black Sea naval facility and had tremendous influence in the whole country. Ukraine was solidly within the “sphere of influence” of the Russians and when it appeared that some in the country wanted closer ties with the European community, the Russians said no. Stalin and his ilk moved a lot of Russians into Ukraine where they now reside. That group feels threatened.

It is pretty well understood that whoever held the seat of power in Ukraine was ethically compromised. Take a look at the last occupant, Victor Yanukovych, who has just been forced from power. The papers that were retrieved as he fled for his life apparently show massive, almost unimaginable corruption. Not only that, many reports show that among the Kiev Ukrainians are people of many stripes, including fascists. Into all of this comes the president of the United States. The Republicans, with their “just say no” to the president, use this, as they have used everything else, to hammer Obama. I keep asking anyone who thinks that he has not been forceful enough what they would do. Do they really think we should get into a confrontation with the nuclear-armed Russians? There may be a time when that is necessary but that time is not now. Some will argue that this kind of territorial push is what happened leading up to World War II. In other words, if Putin is allowed to take territory any time he wishes, we could be looking at another Hitler-like situation.

My bet is that Putin has had enough. When the last so-called Ukrainian revolution took place, the first thing the new and possibly illegal parliament did was to limit the use of the Russian language. Talk about really dumb moves. On the other hand, Putin has an interdependent relationship with the western powers and the last thing he needs is a threat to that relationship. Germany is dependent on Russia for a great deal of its natural gas. While it is true that Germany needs the gas, it is also true that Russia needs the money that pays for the gas.

As it stands now, Putin has pulled back. Whether he stays back is largely up to the group of Western governments. If they say Putin has to be punished and sanctioned, he may feel that he has nothing to lose by exhibiting more aggressive behavior. If they let him off the hook, he ends up with Crimea. Hey, in this world, nothing is easy.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 3/8/14

Leveling the playing field for justice

March 4, 2014

Can you imagine having no money and then being swindled by a businessman or a flat-out crook who takes advantage of your situation? It happens all the time. It may have happened to you. It is easy to yell, “I’ll sue,” but as anyone who has been around the block a few times knows, that legal action doesn’t come cheap. Most people don’t even know how to negotiate the system. That’s one of the reasons why we have a small claims court but even in that case, there can be obstacles and stumbling blocks. You have a much better chance to succeed with legal representation than by going it alone.

Into this scenario comes Eve Schatz, an attorney herself, who is trying to do something to even the playing field so that justice can be accorded to those who can’t afford it. Eve has established The Free Legal Clinic of South Berkshire County, Inc. The idea is to tap into the vast reserve of either practicing or non-practicing lawyers who want to give something back. In that, the organization is much like the wonderful Volunteers in Medicine.

It all began when Schatz, who says she thinks she was born to support the public interest, decided to do something about that commitment. She has always had an interest in fairness and justice. That interest, she says, was born partially in the ‘60s when she saw the Hartford riots and watched hippies being beaten up by police. She saw a society torn apart by the Vietnam war and she recognized the power of the people when they united with one voice. As a result, when she got to law school she directed her efforts toward helping those really in need. Before she went to law school she was a transition program provider at Housatonic Valley Regional High School where she helped students with disabilities.

When she got to the Berkshires, she came to recognize that there were many people here who were unable to pay for legal assistance. When she can, she directs clients to legal aid, but the people who come to The Free Legal Clinic often don’t meet the guidelines for legal aid and fall between the economic cracks.

Schatz says that in the seven years the Free Legal Clinic has been operating, “We’ve helped a thousand clients.” She makes her living as a private attorney doing things like nonprofit law, wills and trusts and real estate law. It is clear that she is passionate about the Free Legal Clinic. But, as every not-for-profit in the Berkshires knows, the day-to-day operations of running an organization is no easy thing to accomplish. You need to rent a space and you need lots of dedicated volunteers. Eve singles out Terrance Cooney, Robin Zeamer, Susan Ketterman and her husband, John Clark. Clark went to law school but never practiced and doesn’t do law but helps in operations. They have made good use of interns including some from Simon’s Rock. Susan Solovay does the marketing for the group.

Schatz says that it costs about a $100,000 a year to run the organization ($90,000 of which comes in the form of “in-kind” donations). This year’s fundraising event will be a “Dance for Justice” combined with a silent auction from 6 to 10 p.m. on March 8 at Dewey Hall in Sheffield. The event will feature comedian T.A. Lewis and the incredible Wanda Houston. The music will be ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. She says that she’d love to find an angel who would help her cover the cost of the event. The goal is to raise $5,000.

Schatz says that she regularly reaches out to the legal community to take on cases and she has never been turned down. She says that they always seem happy to do it.

She really thinks that the Free Legal Clinic has made a difference in the Berkshires.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 3/1/14

Albany’s behavior is an insult to democracy

March 4, 2014

Will we ever have change in New York? I’m talking about substantive change that is not cosmetic but a return to real democracy where the citizen actually stands a chance. It’s enough to make anyone cynical. We disgracefully allow the majority party in each house of the Legislature to draw their own districts. When Andrew Cuomo became governor he promised that he would try to put an end to that. Instead, he and the Legislature got together and developed a plan to end the gerrymander in ten years. What an insult to democracy. By that time, the governor and most of the members of this Legislature will be long gone. The message seems to be, “Let someone else figure it out, it won’t be on our watch.” Let’s face it — when that sort of nonsense happens abroad our politicians attack it as an insult to democracy. It’s enough to make you pull your hair out.

It doesn’t stop there. The governor and the Legislature would have us believe that they are serious about ending traditional corruption so they set up not one but two separate anti-corruption mechanisms in state government, neither of which has done much to change things. Every once in a while some dumbbell legislator does something that is hands on sexually inappropriate and he gets clobbered because the public ire is raised. But almost nothing is done about the fee for service (“I’ll give you campaign money if you do me favors”) system that we see in New York. The governor, who has well over $30 million in his campaign account, is calling for a public financing system of matching money that will allow common citizens and not just incumbents to run for office. Even if you could get that kind of system on line, what would happen to the governor’s money? Let’s remember that people like Michael Bloomberg and others regularly opt out of the system and don’t take the New York City matching money if they have enough.

So we sit and watch the breakdown of whatever democracy we have left. The Republicans have fewer members in the state Senate than the Democrats but still they stay in power. As soon as the Republicans seduce a Democrat to come over the line they give him or her choice committee assignments with tremendous power to haul in campaign dollars from the industries and groups that those committees oversee.

I keep telling the governor and his people that if Democrat Cuomo wanted to put a stop to that shameful situation, he could use his bully pulpit to do so. The Cuomo people claim that they don’t have that kind of power. That, from a governor who got a gun bill through a bunch of upstate legislators who would rather cut off their arms than pass a piece of legislation that could put the kibosh on their re-election. One of the main reasons why people say they will vote for Cuomo is that, “…he gets things done.” That’s right, he can, he does, and he will. So when we hear that he and the Legislature have come together to pass some joke of a bill that appears to address a pressing issue but in reality does no such thing, we have to assume that the political players think most New Yorkers are too dumb to get the difference.

Are the cynical politicians correct? Yes, I’m afraid they are. There may be a few good government groups (“goo-goos”) out there trying to raise the alarm but as people don’t pay attention they will be lulled into thinking that the stench from Albany is no more than they can expect.

As we look at places like Ukraine and see people laying down their lives so that they can choose their government, I get angrier and angrier at all of this.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 3/3/14

Prison college plan is a profile in courage

February 25, 2014

Should inmates in New York state prisons receive free college educations? Governor Andrew Cuomo thinks so. I think that this recent move by Cuomo is a profile in courage. Cuomo is one of the sharpest political practitioners around. Like a master chess player, he is acutely aware of what reaction will result from every political move he makes. Sometimes he does what is right rather than what is politically expedient. In other words, there is good governmental policy and then there is practical politics. When it comes to politics, this may not be the most popular way to proceed but it’s a good example of sound policy. When he went before the Black and Latino Caucus and announced his plan to fund prisoners who wanted to take college courses to the tune of $5,000 each, Cuomo had to know that there would be some hell to pay.

We all know that New York state correctional facilities have a disparate number of African American and Latino inmates and we all know why. These groups have long suffered the scourge of discrimination. Economic and social pressures combined make for a very uneven playing field. The recidivism rate among this population is particularly frightening. Prisoners leave and then return because, without employment, their options are limited to a life of crime. Those on the outside don’t want to hire them so Cuomo proposes to give these folks a chance, allowing them to take college courses. When Bard College ran such a program the results were impressive. The recidivism rate was just fraction of what it had been.

The reaction on the part of people who have had to struggle to pay for college was predictable. To put it mildly, the burden that is placed on lower- and middle-class families is horrendous. I wasn’t surprised when I talked about this with my students and practically everyone in the class said the Cuomo plan wasn’t right. Why should they have to pay for college while those who broke the law were getting a free ride? It didn’t stop with the kids. Some legislators, both Republicans and Democrats, expressed similar outrage. Parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts who were putting kids through school were off the wall. Some suggested, “Okay, but make them borrow the money the same way our kids do and make them pay it back after they get out.”

Petitions were circulated. Right wing pundits were livid. People were reminded that when George Pataki was governor he took an axe to programs like the Cuomo initiative. Some cynically suggested that Cuomo was just being “political” when he brought his program to the meeting of African Americans and Hispanics.

There are those who have long suggested that our African American population is owed reparations for the way they have been treated in this country. That is not going to happen but it might be wise to recognize that the programs of mass incarceration we have in New York are counterproductive.

We are told that it costs around $60,000 a year to maintain a convict. It’s no secret that we have a large prison industry in the state so it is not surprising that any move that will help empty our prisons is met with outrage. The economic consequences would be staggering.

People are right to be outraged about the cost of a college education. Let’s save the money we are spending on prisons and use it to pay for college for everyone. That’s the way it was when I went to Hunter College and that’s part of our obligation to our young people who can make the grade if given the opportunity. I’d love to see Governor Cuomo get with that initiative. In the meantime, he deserves a lot of credit for what he is doing to send prisoners to college.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 2/24/14


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