Sunday, May 15, 2011

Rahm Emanuel-Chicago’s Mr. Mayor

Desk or no desk, however, Rahm Emanuel was already sounding like the mayor. He announced that outsiders would lead the Police Department and the school system. He pressed for state legislation that would let him increase the length of Chicago’s school day. He warned of painful budget cuts immediately ahead, $75 million in his first 100 days.

“We can’t continue with the government we have,” Mr. Emanuel said in an interview in a hotel lobby down the street from City Hall. “It has not been fundamentally reformed.”

After 22 years under the reign of a single, singular mayor and much of the last half-century with someone named Daley at the helm, even the slightest adjustment would feel enormous to Chicago. But Mr. Emanuel, who will officially take over on Monday after a ceremony in Millennium Park, the city’s front yard, is promising seismic shifts.

A 71-page, slickly bound transition plan Mr. Emanuel issued last week used the word “change” 19 times. Many here — including members of a City Council accustomed to Mr. Daley, whom they rarely bucked, and city workers, who fear that Mr. Emanuel will clean house, cut benefits and privatize city services — are bracing for something Chicago, the nation’s third largest city, has rarely known: the unknown.

“You don’t have a crystal ball,” said Jorge Ramirez, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, which chose to endorse no mayoral candidate in the February election that Mr. Emanuel won with 55 percent of the vote.

But if Mr. Emanuel, who is 51 and will become this city’s first Jewish mayor, seems intent on changing Chicago, this city, too, seems certain to change Mr. Emanuel.
Known for his frenetic, blunt, relentless style, Mr. Emanuel, who has been a top adviser to two presidents and a member of Congress, will for the first time work as an elected chief executive. And while machine politics may have faded in Chicago, old alliances and neighborhood tribalism are hardly forgotten, and voters expect their mayor to spend time plenty of time with them. All of this as the city, shrinking in population, is facing a budget crisis of crippling proportion.

“It is an enormous challenge,” said Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago who once served as one of the city’s 50 aldermen. “He’s going to have to find a way to build consensus, collaborations and cooperation to an extent he hasn’t ever had to do at the White House.”

Mr. Emanuel has been walking a careful line: saying sweeping changes are needed but, at the same time, never quite pointing out a failing or misstep by Mr. Daley.
The two men are Democrats, political allies and personal friends. Long ago, Mr. Emanuel raised money for one of Mr. Daley’s campaigns. Though Mr. Daley never publicly chose sides in the mayoral race last winter, he is widely believed to have given a tacit nod to Mr. Emanuel. And Mr. Emanuel said he had been consulting with Mr. Daley lately. “I would be crazy not to call on him,” Mr. Emanuel said.

Besides, criticizing the mayor might not be politically wise. Although voters here like to moan about his dictatorial style and imperfect syntax, Mr. Daley has won six elections, and seemed likely to win another had he not decided to retire. For weeks, Mr. Daley has been conducting a farewell tour of neighborhoods, and banners in the city read, “Chicago; A World-Class City; Thank You Mayor Daley.”

Mr. Emanuel, too, is effusive about his city. But he also has plans — lots of them. He wants Chicago parents to start signing “parent-teacher agreements” at the start of each school year, laying out expectations for learning that will happen at home. He wants to ban mayoral appointees from instantly turning around and lobbying City Hall colleagues when they leave office. He wants to streamline licensing for businesses. He wants to shrink City Council committees. He wants to freeze spending and tackle unfunded pension liabilities, a politically fraught realm.

So many ideas may quickly land Mr. Emanuel in his first clashes with Chicago’s vast City Council, with all its disparate alliances and with one of its most powerful and veteran members, Edward M. Burke, having worked against Mr. Emanuel’s candidacy.

The Poor Quality of a College Education

–45 percent of the students would not have demonstrated gains of even one point over the first two years of college, and 36 percent would not have shown such gains over four years of college.

COMMENCEMENT is a special time on college campuses: an occasion for students, families, faculty and administrators to come together to celebrate a job well done. And perhaps there is reason to be pleased. In recent surveys of college seniors, more than 90 percent report gaining subject-specific knowledge and developing the ability to think critically and analytically. Almost 9 out of 10 report that overall, they were satisfied with their collegiate experiences.

We would be happy to join in the celebrations if it weren’t for our recent research, which raises doubts about the quality of undergraduate learning in the United States. Over four years, we followed the progress of several thousand students in more than two dozen diverse four-year colleges and universities. We found that large numbers of the students were making their way through college with minimal exposure to rigorous coursework, only a modest investment of effort and little or no meaningful improvement in skills like writing and reasoning.

In a typical semester, for instance, 32 percent of the students did not take a single course with more than 40 pages of reading per week, and 50 percent did not take any course requiring more than 20 pages of writing over the semester. The average student spent only about 12 to 13 hours per week studying — about half the time a full-time college student in 1960 spent studying, according to the labor economists Philip S. Babcock and Mindy S. Marks.

Not surprisingly, a large number of the students showed no significant progress on tests of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing that were administered when they began college and then again at the ends of their sophomore and senior years. If the test that we used, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, were scaled on a traditional 0-to-100 point range, 45 percent of the students would not have demonstrated gains of even one point over the first two years of college, and 36 percent would not have shown such gains over four years of college.

Why is the overall quality of undergraduate learning so poor?

While some colleges are starved for resources, for many others it’s not for lack of money. Even at those colleges where for the past several decades tuition has far outpaced the rate of inflation, students are taught by fewer full-time tenured faculty members while being looked after by a greatly expanded number of counselors who serve an array of social and personal needs.

At the same time, many schools are investing in deluxe dormitory rooms, elaborate student centers and expensive gyms. Simply put: academic investments are a lower priority.

The situation reflects a larger cultural change in the relationship between students and colleges.

The authority of educators has diminished, and students are increasingly thought of, by themselves and their colleges, as “clients” or “consumers.” When 18-year-olds are emboldened to see themselves in this manner, many look for ways to attain an educational credential effortlessly and comfortably. And they are catered to accordingly. The customer is always right.
Federal legislation has facilitated this shift. The funds from Pell Grants and subsidized loans, by being assigned to students to spend on academic institutions they have chosen rather than being packaged as institutional grants for colleges to dispense, have empowered students — for good but also for ill. And expanded privacy protections have created obstacles for colleges in providing information on student performance to parents, undercutting a traditional check on student lassitude.

Secret Desert Force Set Up by Blackwater’s Erik Prince

United Arab Emirates — Late one night last November, a plane carrying dozens of Colombian men touched down in this glittering seaside capital. Whisked through customs by an Emirati intelligence officer, the group boarded an unmarked bus and drove roughly 20 miles to a windswept military complex in the desert sand.

The Colombians had entered the United Arab Emirates posing as construction workers. In fact, they were soldiers for a secret American-led mercenary army being built by Erik Prince, the billionaire founder of Blackwater Worldwide, with $529 million from the oil-soaked sheikdom.

Mr. Prince, who resettled here last year after his security business faced mounting legal problems in the United States, was hired by the crown prince of Abu Dhabi to put together an 800-member battalion of foreign troops for the U.A.E., according to former employees on the project, American officials and corporate documents obtained by The New York Times.

The force is intended to conduct special operations missions inside and outside the country, defend oil pipelines and skyscrapers from terrorist attacks and put down internal revolts, the documents show. Such troops could be deployed if the Emirates faced unrest in their crowded labor camps or were challenged by pro-democracy protests like those sweeping the Arab world this year.

The U.A.E.’s rulers, viewing their own military as inadequate, also hope that the troops could blunt the regional aggression of Iran, the country’s biggest foe, the former employees said. The training camp, located on a sprawling Emirati base called Zayed Military City, is hidden behind concrete walls laced with barbed wire. Photographs show rows of identical yellow temporary buildings, used for barracks and mess halls, and a motor pool, which houses Humvees and fuel trucks. The Colombians, along with South African and other foreign troops, are trained by retired American soldiers and veterans of the German and British special operations units and the French Foreign Legion, according to the former employees and American officials.

In outsourcing critical parts of their defense to mercenaries — the soldiers of choice for medieval kings, Italian Renaissance dukes and African dictators — the Emiratis have begun a new era in the boom in wartime contracting that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. And by relying on a force largely created by Americans, they have introduced a volatile element in an already combustible region where the United States is widely viewed with suspicion.

The United Arab Emirates — an autocracy with the sheen of a progressive, modern state — are closely allied with the United States, and American officials indicated that the battalion program had some support in Washington.

FINALLY! Obama to Ramp Up U.S. Oil Production

Seeking to address mounting criticism over high gas prices, President Obamais directing his administration to ramp up U.S. oil production by extending existing leases in the Gulf of Mexico and off Alaska’s coast and holding more frequent lease sales in a federal petroleum reserve in Alaska.

Obama said Saturday that the measures “make good sense” and will help reduce U.S. consumption of imported oil in the long term. But he acknowledged anew that they won’t help to immediately bring down gasoline prices topping $4 a gallon in many parts of the country.

His announcement followed passage in the Republican-controlled House of three bills — including two this week — that would expand and speed up offshore oil and gas drilling. Republicans say the bills are aimed at easing gasoline costs, but they also acknowledge that won’t be immediate.

The White House had announced its opposition to all three bills, which are unlikely to pass the Democratic-controlled Senate, saying the measures would undercut safety reviews and open environmentally sensitive areas to new drilling.

But Obama is adopting some of the bills’ provisions.

U.S. lawmakers in Alaska immediately voiced support for Obama’s drilling plan.

“I’ve been strongly critical of this administration’s policies on domestic production, but today I want to give credit to the president,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told the Hill. “Permitting is the single greatest obstacle to domestic production and the president’s establishment of a new team to coordinate work on Alaska drilling permits is a positive development, as is the extension of leases in the Gulf of Mexico and Chukchi Sea.”

“I consider the president’s address today a positive step forward and a commitment that he is ready to put words into action,” Democratic Sen. Mark Begich said in a statement. “These steps will hopefully lead to expanded development in Alaska and long-term reduction in our dependence on foreign oil from unfriendly countries. However, Congress still must pass comprehensive energy and tax reform bills to bring some relief to families facing high gas prices today and in the future.”

Answering the call of Republicans and Democrats from Gulf Coast states, Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address that he would extend all Gulf leases that were affected by a temporary moratorium on drilling imposed after last year’s BP oil spill. That would give companies additional time to begin drilling.

The administration had been granting extensions case by case, but senior administration officials said the Interior Department would institute a blanket one-year extension.
New safety requirements put in place since the BP spill also have delayed drilling in Alaska, so Obama said he would extend lease terms there for a year as well. An oil lease typically runs 10 years.

Lease sales in the western and central Gulf of Mexico that were postponed last year will be held by the middle of next year, the same time period required by the House. A sale off the Virginia coast still would not happen until 2017 at the earliest. But Obama said he would speed up environmental reviews so that seismic studies to determine how much oil and gas lies off the Atlantic Coast can begin.

To further expedite drilling off the Alaskan coast, where such plans by Shell Oil Co. have been delayed by an air pollution permit, Obama said he would create an interagency task force to coordinate the necessary approvals. He also will hold annual lease sales in the vast National Petroleum Reserve on Alaska’s North Slope. Officials said the most recent sale was last year, but that they had not been held on any set schedule.

Republicans dismayed by the lack of progress in Shell’s drilling have drafted legislation to exempt drilling off Alaska from air pollution laws.

Connecticut Unions Agree to $1.6 Billion in Givebacks

By ,  Threatened with nearly 5,000 layoffs, representatives for 45,000 unionized state employees agreed Friday to $1.6 billion in concessions over two years to help balance a budget that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, above, says includes pain for everyone: record tax increases, substantial program cuts and worker givebacks in health care, pension benefits and wages.

Mr. Malloy announced the deal after two months of negotiations and the passage of a budget last week that assumed concessions before they were accepted by the unions. He said the deal, which is still subject to ratification by workers, would save Connecticut taxpayers $21.5 billion over 20 years through structural changes in employee compensation.

The governor, a Democrat who won election in November with strong union support, has carved out a national niche as a politician seeking an approach to state governance different from the confrontational stances taken by Republican counterparts like Chris Christie in New Jersey and Scott Walker in Wisconsin. Despite layoff notices that started going out this week, Mr. Malloy and labor leaders maintained a cordial public tone throughout the bargaining.

Mr. Malloy hailed the deal as “historic because of the way we achieved it — we respected the collective-bargaining process and we respected each other, negotiating in good faith, without fireworks and without anger.” He also called the deal “the most significant agreement with state employees in Connecticut history” for its long-term approach.

Republicans were far less impressed; the party’s chairman, Chris Healy, called the agreement a “budget charade,” with insufficient work force cuts because of Mr. Malloy’s close ties to employee unions.

The agreement includes a provision that no unionized employees will be laid off for four years and a two-year freeze on wages for all employees. Mr. Malloy said he nevertheless planned to reduce the size of the government through attrition and the elimination of managerial positions.
The concessions fall $400 million short of the $2 billion Mr. Malloy sought, a difference that will be made up with more spending cuts and revenues that are higher than had been anticipated.
But no further details are being released as negotiators take the agreement to 34 bargaining units at 15 unions; it needs 14 of those unions and 80 percent of the voting members to approve it. Union officials said they would send details to members immediately, and planned to make them public at the beginning of next week.

Larry Dorman, a spokesman for the unions, said it was hard to predict how members would react, but the deal should be evaluated in terms of contentious anti-union sentiments and turmoil in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere. “I hate to say if it’s good or bad,” he said, “but we stand behind it and think it’s the right thing to do in these difficult times.”

Republicans said it was impossible to assess the package fully without more specifics, but said the amicable dealings between Mr. Malloy and union leaders were not necessarily a good sign.
“A lot of people have asked where’s the outrage, the kind of outrage you saw in Wisconsin and around the country where various governors, especially Republican governors, have wanted to make changes,” the House Republican leader, Larry Cafero, said.

Video-CNN’s Fareed Zakaria – American people: You are ‘the big problem’

Considering America’s ad hoc response to the Arab Spring so far – and the historic opportunity to support democracy in the region – he needs to put a coherent strategy before the public and Congress.

Despite US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, foreign policy did not resonate with voters in last year’s elections. Since then, Osama bin Laden has been tracked down and killed. Persistent democratic protesters have also shaken autocratic regimes, toppling those in Tunisia and Egypt and prompting US military action in Libya.

Now the president is considering a policy “reset” that takes these earth-moving changes into account. But Mr. Obama must consult now with the people’s representatives – Congress – on his priorities and potential actions in the Middle East.

He’ll have an opportunity next week, when a 60-day deadline to seek congressional authorization for US military action in Libya expires under the War Powers Resolution of 1973.
The administration is apparently approaching this deadline like a lawyer, trying to determine how to wiggle free of the terms and leave Congress out of it. Too often, presidents have sidestepped the legislative branch, which has the constitutional power to declare war. (Regardless what one thought of the Iraq war, George W. Bush at least went to Congress for approval of it.)

Libya requires a debate on the Hill. Important questions remain unanswered: Will NATO allies have the resources and will to engage in a prolonged civil war? Should the US supply and recognize the rebels? What will the US do in the face of a sustained stalemate? And key, how does Libya fit into America’s overall strategy in the Arab world?