Thursday, June 30, 2016

Bittersweet Water Quality

The beat goes on. The media and environmental scribes continue to hammer away at the sugar-cane industry for its role in polluting Lake Okeechobee and the surrounding waterways.
The most recent tack is to tut-tut the government for subsidizing “big sugar” — forgiven loans, import restrictions, limited domestic production — de facto subsidies to ensure a price advantage over foreign competition. The strategy of “big sugar” opponents may be to drive U.S. producers out of business so the land can be turned into filter marshes and holding ponds to clean up water flowing into the Everglades.
That won’t happen. A major player in the Florida economy — $3.2 billion per year and over 12,000 jobs — the sugar industry is here to stay. And it should be. Transferring wealth is a poor strategy for dealing with pollution.
So is buying land. The cry for spending Amendment 1 money to purchase U.S. Sugar land south of the lake continues (I have been among the criers). One set of options has expired, but another, requiring all-or-nothing purchase at market price, remains.
That would be a huge expense, and it would only be a band aid. To have an impact on pollution control, land to the east and west would have to be purchased as well, not to mention thousands of acres to the north where flow from the Kissimmee area carries its own set of pollutants.
We’re talking about billions of government dollars to buy untold acres. Then there is the matter of building new reservoirs, enlarging canals and installing clean-up facilities. A massive undertaking requiring not only a staggering amount of public money, but also decades of time.
It won’t happen.
To get a perspective on what would be involved, I invite the reader to drive to Clewiston, get off the main highway and wander among the cane fields. You will see that the buy-land-and-clean-up-the-flow-south strategy is unrealistic, if not downright absurd.
An approach that is realistic and might have an impact is to toughen the nutrient standards for all lakes and waterways in Florida. Forget about the piecemeal site-specific specs and put in place stringent limits statewide for soluble nitrogen and phosphorus, the bad actors in fertilizer runoff.
The Department of Environmental Protection can readily do that. And it should. It doesn’t take billions of dollars in land purchase to tighten water-quality specs.
But can those specs be enforced? Probably not everywhere. But they can be enforced in the areas of greatest concern, and Clewiston is one of those areas.
The sugar industry must be held accountable for water pollution — and fertilizer runoff is the greatest cause. Imposing and enforcing standards on waterways amid the cane fields and refineries may be the only realistic way to curb pollution from the sugar industry.
To convince yourself, take a road trip.

Slums, Debt and Guns

Good intentions often go awry. Kind acts backfire. What starts well often ends badly.
Welcome to the world of unintended consequences. Here are three recent examples.
- Habitat for Humanities is a remarkable success story, a coming together of individuals (no government, thank you) to contribute money and build homes with and for the less fortunate among us. Habitat is the ultimate example of hands-on altruism. Retired lawyers wielding a hammer. Retired physicians wiring a new home.
And the Naples chapter is one of the most successful in the nation, turning out hundreds of low-cost homes for families that participate in their construction. What can possibly be bad about that?
The homes are not maintained. One Naples Daily News letter writer points to “trash, mobs of kids, many rusted old cars and other debris.” What Habitat is really doing, she says, is creating slums. A second letter writer agrees. No more donations from him.
Those of us from corporate life know you need capital to build things and operating money to maintain them. Habitat provides the capital but leaves the maintenance up to the occupants. And many of the Habitat occupants have no money to keep up their property. Basic repairs, trash containment, an occasional coat of paint — none of that happens. So the donors (count me among them) and the hands-on builders from the right side of the tracks churn out houses that subsequently deteriorate.
- According to the Wall Street Journal, the federal government — Republicans and Democrats alike — made a trillion-dollar-plus investment over the past 15 years to improve the nation’s workforce. A big part of that was for higher education, loans for attending community colleges, universities and graduate schools. Total outstanding student debt today stands at $1.2 trillion.
A recent study by the Treasury Department and George Washington University showed that over half of the loan-burdened students dropped out of school before graduating. Of those who did graduate, many found their subsequent earnings barely covered debt repayment.
The sad conclusion, say the experts, is that government largesse in the form of student loans has widened, not narrowed, the gap between the haves and have-nots in this country. Perhaps that will change in the future. But for now it’s an unintended and very unfortunate consequence.
- Then there is gun control. Every mass shooting brings calls for more gun control. Never mind that cities with the most stringent gun laws (Chicago, Detroit) have the highest murder rates. Never mind that home-grown terrorists bent on carrying out Islamic jihad pay no attention to gun laws. A political cohort in our country feels we can shut down violence if we simply make it harder for people to get firearms.
So what happens? Every time there’s a call for stricter gun laws, there’s a huge spike in gun sales. (Floridians are on track to buy more firearms this year than ever before.) The New York Times quotes an analyst as saying President Obama is the best gun salesman the country has ever seen.
Instead of taking guns off the street, the government is inadvertently promoting gun ownership. Calls for more stringent background checks simply send the determined killer underground; data shows there are plenty of illegal guns to be had. You can’t legislate lawfulness.
Let’s not give up on good intentions. But let’s be clear they are often subject to Murphy’s Law: If things can go wrong, they probably will. The path to nirvana is littered with unintended consequences.

School Yard Brawl

How good are the Collier County Public Schools? That’s the key question as we consider how to vote in the bitterly contested school board election.
Some feel our education system is just fine. The district has an A rating from the state and boasts better-than-average graduation rates. Over half of the seniors took advanced courses this year, job placement was good and scholarships for college were at an all-time high.
Two of the school board candidates agree. Stephanie Lucarelli, running for the District 2 seat, and Erick Carter, contesting the District 4 seat, support the status quo, including use of government tests and acceptance of federal money. Neither sees a reason for an internal audit. And both wholeheartedly support Superintendent Kamela Patton.
Others see things differently. Detractors point to uneven test scores and a dumbing down of state ratings. They cite national assessments that indicate only 56% of our students are proficient in reading and 64% in math, and only 34% are college ready.
The other two school board candidates feel these are real problems that must be addressed. To do that, Lee Dixon (District 4) and Louise Penta (District 2) would get government out of public education. They would seek more local control over standardized testing and choice of textbooks and would give parents a greater role in establishing policy. And they would impose an internal audit.
The differences between the candidates are very clear.
That’s the local scene. How about Florida in general? How is it doing in public education? Compared with other states, we usually end up somewhere in the middle. In an interesting assessment last May, a cross-section of the nation’s school districts was graded on academics, overall educational experience, culture/diversity and resources/facilities. No Florida district made the top 20.
And the U.S. in general? We’re still way down the list in global testing — 24th in math and 17th in reading. Martin Feldstein of Harvard, in an evaluation of the U.S. economy, sees our education system as a serious detriment. He recently wrote, “The education for most K-12 students falls short of global standards, and we fail to provide useful education and training for many high-school graduates. The nation needs to address these problems in the coming decade.”
How do we do that in Florida? The easy answer is throw more money at it. Not everyone buys that. A circuit judge, ruling in a case that sought more school funding, recently found that the legislature was already doing enough. Leon County Judge George Reynolds praised the state’s work on accountability, teacher training and evaluation. “The weight of evidence shows the state has made education a top priority in terms of … education policies and reforms, as well as education funding.”
The question of per-student costs has dogged Collier schools for years. Detractors complain it is among the highest in the state, while supporters say you can’t just divide total cost by student population. Recent letters to the Naples Daily News argue you must take into account redundancies, unspent fund balances and non-general fund accounts. That takes $21,500 per student down to $8,800 per pupil. Detractors say that’s accounting gobbledygook.
Then there’s the issue of minorities. We are told our cost-performance rating is poor because of the many Hispanic students who struggle with the English language. In Collier, half of the public-school students are from homes where English is the second language or isn’t spoken at all. No wonder, we are told, costs are high and test scores lag national averages.
What about effectiveness in preparing graduates for the workplace or for college? Last year Lydia Galton and I evaluated this for the Collier Citizens Council and concluded, with some caveats, that the Collier public schools do a better-than-average job.
Finally, there is the political overlay. The Collier Republican Executive Committee endorsed Louise Penta and Lee Dixon, and many Republicans will vote accordingly. Civic groups heavily populated by Democrats support Stephanie Lucarelli and Erick Carter. Party loyalty is strong in Naples and will have a big effect on the voting.
So what’s the answer? How good are the Collier schools? I have my opinion, and I know how I’m going to vote. Do you?

Muhammad Ali: Not the Greatest

I spoke to an angry man today, someone I had never met before. “Why,” the gentleman asked, “are we celebrating a draft dodger.”
He was referring, of course, to the adulation being given Muhammad Ali, recently deceased. My new friend is ex-military and furious with what he considered to be the deification of a bum.
And you know what? He’s right.
Ali, ne Cassius Clay, was not the greatest in anything.
- The breathless media would have you believe he was one of the greatest athletes of all time. Nonsense. He wasn’t even the greatest boxer. He couldn’t lace the gloves of Sugar Ray Robinson or Rocky Marciano. Ali won some big fights and lost some big fights — a pedestrian record at best. (Full disclosure: I lost a bundle on the Sonny Liston fight.)
- He wasn’t even the greatest draft dodger, but he certainly tried to be. At a time when American boys were being called up to fight and die in an unpopular war, Cassius changed his name and religion and hid behind the questionable tenants of Islam. He was reviled at the time and should be reviled now. His lack of patriotism — some would say cowardice — is nothing to celebrate.
- But he was a braggart, certainly one of the greatest. When we were teaching our children about modesty and integrity and shared credit, Ali was shouting, “I am the greatest thing God ever put on this earth!” His bombast was ill-placed. He never contributed a thing to society. He never invented a product, educated a child or bent his back in honest labor. He was little more than a self-serving loudmouth.
- Ah, but civil rights. We’re told he was right up there with Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi. That’s the biggest joke of all. Quite the opposite of “fighting for human rights,” Ali was a big-time racist. Jeff Jacoby, reporting in the Boston Globe, elaborates. In a 1968 interview, Ali proclaimed, “Whites and blacks cannot get along; this is nature … Negroes shouldn’t force themselves in white neighborhoods, and white people shouldn’t have to move out.” He believed in strict segregation. “Black people should marry their own women.”
In a 1975 interview in Playboy, Ali argued that interracial couples should be lynched. “A black man should be killed if he’s messing with a white woman.” What if a black woman wanted to be with a white man? “Then she dies,” Ali said. “Kill her too.”
If Ali was greatest at anything, perhaps it was bigotry.
I realize this is politically very incorrect, that one should roll with the rewrite of history. Slip the punch of reality. There’s really nothing to be gained by saying, with apologies to Hans Christian Anderson, the king has no clothes.
But my new friend, the upset air force veteran, made me realize there are at least two of us who see through the deception.
The good news is that the hosannas will pass; sainthood will be bestowed and we’ll move on to other things, other deceptions. And in this election season, there should be plenty of deceptions to go around.

Clinton? Never!

While the media and much of the far left take turns damning Donald Trump, we are left with the notion that Hillary Clinton is the default candidate. She’s the lesser of two evils.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Hillary is the worst possible choice — a sleazy, calculating charlatan who lies with abandon and totes a record of consistent failure and outright corruption.
Let’s look at her qualifications.
- She has no character. In a recent poll, people were asked to describe Hillary Clinton in a single word. The top three were liar, dishonest and untrustworthy. I would add self-centered, hypocritical, manipulative, corrupt and decadent. Anything goes as long as it benefits Hillary.
- She has even less presidential persona than Obama. Naples Daily News letter writer Cheryl Stackus nailed it, decrying Hillary’s “bellowing microphone technique and her screeching-fishwife delivery” and “shrieked diatribes, shouted accusations and bombastic beratements delivered at the top of her lungs.”
Stackus yearns for someone presidential, someone with “the integrity of Margaret Thatcher; the compassionate, soulful womanhood of Indira Ghandi; the poised, assured, intellectual delivery of Carly Fiorina.” Hillary will not be confused with any of those.
- Clinton is Obama in a pants suit. She has the president’s entitlement mentality, but squared. Her presidency would be an Obama third term. She would expand Obamacare, raise taxes (but only on the 50% who pay any taxes to begin with), increase regulations, exploit the black-white divide, pour on more debt, spew out executive orders. If you like Obama, you’ll love Hillary. She’ll give you more of the same.
- She does have experience, but it’s all bad. Her resume reads like an indictment. As secretary of state, she oversaw the rise of ISIS, the appeasement of Iran, the downgrading of Israel, increased bloodshed in the Middle East, the rise of nuclear North Korea and, in culmination, the stand-down order that killed four Americans in Libya.
Then there is the email scandal — an egregious breach of national security she airily dismisses because it didn’t break any laws. In Clinton’s world anything that isn’t criminal is permissible. Everyday rules don’t apply to Hillary. They’re only for the little people.
- She is the worst possible spokesman for women’s rights. In a remarkable footnote to history, she turned a blind eye to her husband’s sexual forays and discredited the women he abused — Gennifer Flowers, Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, Juanita Broaddrick. Hillary’s response to all this: Ms. Flowers was “a gold digger.” Ms. Lewinsky was “a narcissistic loony toon.” The abused women, the victims, were at fault.
Her current championing of women’s right is a head fake to voters she hopes are too young to remember. Anyway, her supporters say, Hillary is running for president, not her husband. His sins aren’t hers. But in this case history is relevant. Hillary is offering a twofer — you vote for her and get Bill too; he will be an integral part of her administration. Interns beware.
- Hillary is steeped in corruption. The Clinton Foundation was set up de facto to enrich Bill and Hillary with donations from individuals, companies and foreign governments that expected access and grants and contracts — much of this while Hillary was secretary of state. And the Clintons delivered. Favors were dispensed, influence was peddled, foreign charities were set up and taxes evaded or at least deferred, with the taxpayers picking up the tab. The level of corruption was mind-boggling.
So while my leftist friends bang away at Donald Trump, I know one thing for certain: I will never vote for Hillary Clinton.