Sunday, February 27, 2011

Union Without Teeth

The union busting acts across large swatch of the nation have had and will have great impact on the employer-labor relations in this country for a long period.  To be sure, many unions have grown impossibly corrupt and draconian and should be reformed completely.

However, the attempt like that in Wisconsin to take away the unions' collective bargain rights is plainly wrong.  It will render the unions almost toothless.  What then would we have if all unions are rendered toothless or even dead?

Let us look across the expanse of the Pacific Ocean, and look at our great creditor, factories and merchandises supplier, China.  It is a country with one union - All Workers' Union.  The union does nothing but implement managements' will.  Would we want to have that as our model, so our workers can work 12 hours a day, at minimum wages, living in dorm where foreman walks ups and downs to see and punish those who chats and who eats snacks. Do we want to have our drop-out kids to work in unsafe coal mine, 12 hours a day?  Do we want to have our workers work like robots so as to assemble iProducts as fast as they can?

Many people, particularly the rich, might not mind.  But most would not like that to happen here.

Without strong, independent unions, we will go back to the days of Industrial Revolution.  That was futile ground for fermenting discontent and revolution.  Thinking about Egypt and Tunisia.  If it can happen there, why wouldn't it happen here, if the poor and middle class are continued to be robbed, so we can give the uber-rich more and more tax cuts - when the economy was good, we cut taxes so we can "give money back to the people", and when the economy was bad, we cut more taxes so we can spur investments, even though the bailed out banks and bankers on sitting right on top of their ever larger gold-mountains.

Public worker unions' pensions as they are now are largely unsustainable and there is an urgent need to reform them.  Unions are not totally averse to any compromises.  What they hate is the re-distributing wealth from the poor and middle-class to the upper elites.  What they hate is reverse Robin Hood.  Time to examine the conscious of our society and determine if we are to pay our teachers, firefighters, policemen decently, or we are happy to make them working slaves.

Economic development is not the goal itself.  The goal is to create quality of life for the most.  Time to wake up, think, and act to make the country better.  But I have not seen reason to be optimistic.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Mission of California Universities

In January, San Francisco Chronicle reported Cuts Could Shut Out Thousands of Students:
At UC and CSU, a $1 billion reduction would bring the universities back to about the same level of state funding each received in 1999: nearly $2.6 billion for UC, and about $2.3 billion for CSU.

But both systems educate tens of thousands more students today than they did a dozen years ago.

CSU, for example, enrolls 70,000 more students today than in 1999, Reed said. Yet budget cuts have forced its 23 campuses to turn away 40,000 students over the last two years.

The universities were spared cuts in the current budget approved in October, so CSU has been adding students for spring 2011. But it's proved a short-lived reprieve from the cuts.

"We will not be able to admit as many students as we had been planning for this fall," Reed said.

On 15 February, SF Chronicle reported again, in Spending-cut scenario for California presented that
The $13.5 billion in cuts consists largely of a $5.2 billion reduction in K-12 public school and community college programs, a more than $2 billion cut in funding for the UC and CSU systems and a $2.6 billion reduction in spending on public safety and the courts.

Specific actions in education include eliminating kindergarten through third grade class-size limits, raising the minimum age for kindergarten beginning this year, shortening the school year and eliminating state funding for transporting students to school.

For higher education, the analyst pointed to options such as increasing tuition an additional 7 percent for UC students and 10 percent for CSU students, along with reducing state contributions for research activities and reducing enrollment in the CSU system by 5 percent.

The state's public safety system could be reduced by eliminating various grants, rejecting proposed changes to the prison system, delaying court construction projects and shifting responsibility for parole services to local governments.

Leno said the analysis confirms that funding for education and public safety - which largely were spared in Brown's budget proposal that counts on the tax extensions and increases - would probably be primary sources for additional cuts.
Heart breaking scenarios and stories indeed.  However, the phrase "turning away students" really made me think and eventually get impatient with the entitlement Californians are enjoying or abusing.  Growing up in highly competitive China, applying students being turned away was nothing but norm.  I am not saying that is correct, rather, I'm tying to say that to receive a great education is not a right but a privilege and the society needs to pay for that collectively, and individuals need to strive to be the best.

I am fed up with stories that in American colleges, even elite ones, students had to take extra courses to make up for their insufficient high school educations, and universities spent valuable resources to teach them high school classes.  That must change.

In 2003, an article reported in San Francisco Chronicle stated that Deficit imperils UC's mandate / New president may have to put a cap on enrollments.  According to the article,
State policy for colleges and universities is laid out in the 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education, which pledges UC to admit all those from the top eighth, or 12.5 percent, of the state's graduating high school seniors who want admission. UC also promises seats to the top 4 percent of each high school, and is committed to large numbers of graduate and transfer students as well.
As many have argued that this policy has propelled California to the forefront of the technology renovations and indeed it is sad to change this noble policy.  However, facing insufficient funding, trying to stick to such policy is foolhardy, particularly in the era of globalization and many more competent students from all over the world want to be educated in University of California.

As a matter of fact, many students from highly competitive regions, such as Taiwan, Japan, China, come to the US for high school and college education, so as to avoid competition back home.  That speaks volume.  Insisting on admitting all 12.5% of the state's graduating high school seniors giving them a sense of entitlement which would not fly in current fiscal environment and would not work in the age of global village.

Perhaps, American students can learn from those brave foreigners and go can also go to Mexico, Brazil, India, China, etc. for quality and cheaper educations as well.

It's high time for the Americans to face up realities.

Matthew Felix Sun's Drawing_7254

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Food Securities, Human Dignities and Revolutions

The exhilarating 18 day Egyptian popular uprising, and its precursor in Tunisia, were triggered by generations of disfranchisement and indignities people there had suffered.  However, the heightening of such discontents can be attributed to, to a large degree, the food price increases in the region and in the world.

The rapid rising of food prices can be contributed to many factors but one undeniably was the change of climate.  Losing or arable land to other man-made structure, such as those in China, contributed to this food crisis as well.  Or, like what happens in the US, when large quantity of corns are used to make ethanol, instead of feeding people and livestock. 

New York Times reported on 12 February that U.S.D.A. Approves Pro-Ethanol Corn Over Food Industry’s Objections:
A corn that is genetically engineered to make it easier to convert into ethanol has been approved for commercial growing by the Agriculture Department.

The decision, announced on Friday, was made despite objections from corn millers and others in the food industry, who warned that if the industrial corn accidentally got into corn used for processed foods, it could lead to crumbly corn chips, soggy cereal, loaves of bread with soupy centers and corn dogs with inadequate coatings.

"It is going to contaminate the food and feed system, and why they are going to take that risk over the objections of a major American industry, I just don't understand," said Margaret Mellon, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group that has been critical of genetically engineered crops.

The corn contains a microbial gene that causes the corn to produce an enzyme that breaks down corn starch into sugar, part of the process for making ethanol fuel. Ethanol plants now buy this enzyme, called alpha amylase, and add it to the corn at the start of their production process.


The amylase corn is also one of the first to be engineered for industrial purposes rather than food use. The Agriculture Department has said in the past that crops used to produce industrial enzymes and pharmaceuticals would get extra scrutiny and regulation.

The department said on Friday it had determined that Syngenta's corn met the statutory requirements for approval, in that the crop did not pose a plant risk. The Food and Drug Administration had previously found the corn safe to eat. The Agriculture Department said it was aware of the concerns of corn millers and food processors, but said the industry should work that out by itself.
This is very irresponsible of the government to let the industry to work out itself - didn't we have a finance and banking industry threw this nation and the world into the havoc we are still suffering from?  Soon, the food chain will be polluted and more people will suffer from this.  The prices of the food will go even higher.

China, after have devoured acres and acres arable lands to build condos, office buildings, etc., and built huge vanity dams which exacerbated the drought, is moving from food self-sufficiency towards purchasing grains and that will make the poor people in the world suffer more.

This is, in turn, creating ripe conditions for revolutions, which would not necessarily be always bloodless.

Kneeling Egyptians Beside hunger, other indignities people in Tunisia and Egypt suffered from their autocrat rulers were other factors of these revolutions.

Yet, it is hard to make those remote rulers understand the need of dignity of the ruled and their such sufferings.  When the Egyptians knelt down for their prayers, the official newspaper in China, China Daily, reported that they knelt down to plea or beg the president to step down.  Maybe most secular Chinese don't understand the kneeling praying ritual, but I suspect the editors in the newspaper knew better.  They'd like to make people believe that their rights need to be bestow as alms.

No, Egyptians didn't plea or beg.  They demanded.  Unlike those protesting students there in 1989 who still harbored hope and trust from their government, longed for democracy, yet behaved as if serfs in front of their emperor.

To live like human beings, people need their dignities.

People want to live like human beings.  This demand exists everywhere and needs not be imported.  Several people are trying to credit George W. Bush (GWB) for bringing the changes to Mideast.  That argument won't fly.  GWB's attempt to export democracy was no different from Mao Zedong's attempt to export revolutions.  Trying to claim credit for GWB is attempting to deny the ability of people to self determining their own fates, though this does not mean that we shall not support the liberal democratic ideas, and on this front, US actually has failed quite often.

Time to reflect, as well as to celebrate.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Super Bowl Viewership: 111 Million, Voters: 90 Million

Last Sunday, I met friends in an extremely popular restaurant for dinner but it was only half full.  After a little discussion, we realized that it must be due to the Super Bowl match.

According to New York Times, The Super Bowl on Fox set a record Sunday by attracting an average of 111 million viewers, eclipsing by 4.5 million the previous high for a United States TV program, last year’s Super Bowl on CBS.

The enthusiasm was quite impressive and I only wish that people would be as enthusiastic about exercising our citizens' duties.

Associate Press reported that the 2010 election's overall turnout in the was projected at 42 percent of registered voters, about 1.2 percentage points higher than in 2006.

The total popular vote nationwide was expected to reach about 90 million people, 6.2 million more than voted in 2006. About 131.1 million people voted in 2008. Turnout is higher for a presidential election than for midterm contests.

The 91 million turn our rate was confirmed by United States Election Project.

Granted, not all those 111 million people who tuned in for Super Bowl were voting-aged citizens.  However, only 42% of registered voters who cast ballots was plainly pathetic.  In some ways, the legitimacy of such election could be questioned, considering many more eligible people didn't even bother to register as voters.

Our country sure knows our priorities.

The Super Bowl match in Dallas, led me to think about Texas, a state used to ridicule others for their budgetary miseries.  It turned out that their pride was misplaced.

According to San Francisco Chronicle report, Texas in a budget mess similar to rival California:
Texas Gov. Rick Perry delights in telling tales of his California "hunting trips" - hunting for businesses ready to flee the Golden State.

But the latest budget projections out of Texas have sharply changed the discussion: The Lone Star State is facing a budget gap of about $27 billion, putting it in the same league as California among states facing financial meltdowns. The gap amounts to roughly one-third of the state's budget.

Well, game is over!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Sputnik Out of Decline?

President Obama asserted in his State of Union speech that "the state of our nation is strong" and calling the collective difficulties Americans face today "our generation's Sputnik moment" and envisioning a reprise of the "wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs" in the 1960s after the USSR beat the U.S. into space with their Sputnik I satellite.

He painted a vivid picture and the speech was very inspiring, if one doesn't probe further.

There is no denying that we do need a wave of innovation to help to keep our nation's growth.  However, we cannot Sputnik out of our decline without some other fundamental changes.

One of these fundamental changes needed is reversing the rampant anti-intellectualism in the U.S.  Instead of pursuing true life fulfillment, Americans have been conditioned to believe that owing more stuff is the essence of happiness and American dream, and the cheap imported goods made us live in an oblivious bliss and drive our nation into deep decline.  Big business and cynical politicians tried hard to make us forget about the vast economic inequality which is exacting a huge toll on our society and meanwhile most American people still unrealistically believe their upward social mobility as if they could be the next Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg.  People therefore have lost the grasp of reality and living in a phony promised land.

Without a new enlightenment, without the firm grasp of reality, we cannot fix our problems.  Without correcting that attitude, without ensuring people to pursue intellectual and spiritual growth, we will remain complacent and we will not be able to Sputnik us out of the decline and decay.

Innovation is useful but not panacea. Sometime, an innovation is not even actually one.

Take the story regarding automation of toll collection at Golden Gate Bridge.  San Francisco Chronicle reported last week that Golden Gate Bridge toll booths shutting down and all tolls will be collected electronically in 2012.

Even thirty to forty years ago, Chicago had toll collection system required no human collected yet the Golden Gate Bridge calling this switching from human to electronic collection an innovation.  I hope when President Obama touted innovation, he had better kinds in mind.

The second aspect of this toll story had something to do with our social and economical structure.  Currently, 34 human toll collectors are employed at the Golden Gate Bridge, breathing the foul air day-in and day-out.  When the recommendation to switch to electronic system was made, there were concerns over the fate of the 34 toll-takers whose jobs will be eliminated.  Tim Paulson, executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council, criticized the loss of not only individual jobs, but of a type and level of work that allowed people without college degrees to make decent livings. Toll collectors at the bridge make an average of $27 an hour, according to the district.  Mr. Paulson said that "it's very disturbing to see the elimination of an entire job class for the sake of efficiency.  We're really disappointed to see the elimination of an entire class of workers."

Interesting fact.

I absolutely believe that a hard-working person should made a decent living and $27 an hour is not very extravagant, particularly when we look at the other end of the economic scale and realize that in this country, someone can make up to $84,000,000 a year.  However, $27/hour salary does exceeds many people's income level who have college degrees and work in a more complex working environment and dealing with more intricate issues.  I think there is some structural imbalance here as well.

I can understand Mr. Paulson's frustration regarding the job loss.  However, despite the decent income level, can anyone in his sincerity call toll-taking a good job?   Why don't we devote some time and energy to help people to move into some better kind jobs?  "Protecting" certain menial jobs sometimes really meaning to hold people down.

Mr. Paulson's concern is real and urgent, however.  With more innovation to come, and the global village becomes more intertwined, jobs in some sectors will lose however we fight against it.  Our society as a whole must recognize this and reckon that the economic growth will not pull all the people along and someone will be left behind, and find a way to deal with this issue with humane compassion.

What matters in reality is the quality of life not the materials we churn out and consume.  Last weekend, I saw a play (a monologue really) The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.  The creator/performer Mike Daisey examined how the CEO of Apple and his obsessions profoundly shape our everyday lives—and traveled to China to investigate the factories where millions toil to make iPhones and iPods. This journey shone a brilliant light on our love affair with our devices and the human cost of creating them.  The Chinese labors' life he depicted was horrible to hear and digest.  They do things with hands with efficiency of ants and bees.  Despite the fact that they made somewhat more money than other Chinese labors, their life was miserable.  It doesn't matter if they make monthly salaries of $200, $2,000 or $4,000, their jobs are still awful jobs.  We want to improve their conditions, but what about here?

Demons - Fyodor Dostoevsky, Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

I'm reading Dostoevsky's Demons which is a testimonial of life in Imperial Russia in the late 19th century. 
As the revolutionary democrats begin to rise in Russia, different ideologies begin to collide. Dostoevsky casts a critical eye on both the left-wing idealists, portraying their ideas and ideological foundation as demonic, and the conservative establishment's ineptitude in dealing with those ideas and their social consequences.  It is a scary time and some of those nihilism ideas are just as destructive as the doctrine of Communism and the current brand of Republican's.

On page 404 - Part II, With Our Party (Random House paperback, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky), conspirators were debating how to make progress in Russia.  One mentioned a doctrine he read somewhere: "The measures proposed by the author for removing the will from nine tenths of mankind and remaking them into a herd, by means of a re-educating of entire generations - are quite remarkable, based on natural facts, and extremely logical."

A moment later, another character shouted: "Instead of paradise, I'd take these nine tenths of mankind, since there's really nothing to do about them, and blow them sky-high, and leave just a bunch of learned people who would then start living happily in an educated way."

We can dismiss those as empty talks and nonsenses but those were the idea of the revolutions swept us in the last century and has been continuously practiced in places like China.  In the U.S., since so many people are uninformed, they are simply herds with iPods, iPhones and iPads.

Technology and innovation are all crucial.  But to make our society right, it alone is not enough.