Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Back to pen, paper and the personal? -- Aug. 28, 2014 column


One of my favorite news stories lately concerns the Cleveland Browns’ radical experiment: They’re writing stuff down. By hand.

The football players got tablet computers – like everyone else in the NFL this year – but the team’s new coach also gave each player his own pad of paper.  Coach Mike Pettine wants his players to learn plays by taking longhand notes.

Pettine is drawing on his experience as a former high school coach and his dad’s as a high school teacher and coach to help players remember their moves, The Wall Street Journal’s Kevin Clark reported Aug. 12 in a lengthy story about the revolutionary strategy.

“I would talk to teachers all the time, and they would say, `To write is to learn,’” Pettine told Clark. “When you write stuff down, you have a much higher chance of it getting imprinted on your brain.”

Pettine deserves points for bucking the digital tide, however his team fares on the field.
The Browns’ experiment reminds us that, all too often, once we’ve raced to the latest new thing – be it device or diet – it turns out to be not nearly as cool and shiny as it first seemed.

Schools have rushed to put tablets – the electronic variety – and laptops in students’ hands, and rightly so. It’s important that all students learn the technology that dominates our lives. At the same time, though, research increasingly suggests that the old reliable skills of writing by hand and reading traditional books may be better for learning and comprehension.
Students who took lecture notes longhand learned more concepts than those who took notes on a keyboard, Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of University of California, Los Angeles reported in April in the journal “Psychological Science.”

Why the difference? Students who took notes on laptops tended to transcribe lectures verbatim while those who took notes by hand summarized and reframed the material in their own words. The second approach was more effective for learning.
“Laptop use can negatively affect performance on educational assessments, even – or perhaps especially – when the computer is used for its intended function of easier note taking,” Mueller and Oppenheimer wrote in “The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking.”

The researchers concluded that “laptop use in classrooms should be viewed with a healthy dose of caution; despite their growing popularity, laptops may be doing more harm in classrooms than good.”

Students love e-reading, and enthusiasm goes a long way to spur learning. But several studies here and in Europe suggest that people who use e-readers comprehend less than readers of traditional books. 

A new study in Norway found that Kindle readers could not reconstruct the plot of a mystery story by Elizabeth George as well as those who read the short story in a paperback. Researcher Anne Mangen of Stavanger University said that seeing pages that have been read pile up on the left may help a reader’s sense of a story unfolding, reported The Guardian, a British newspaper.

Researchers at West Chester University in Pennsylvania found that students comprehend at “a much higher level” when they read a traditional book than when they read the same material on an iPad. Heather Schugar and Jordan Schugar also warned that interactive e-books may be gimmicky and distracting to students, who “often skipped over text, where the meat of the information was.”

Educators aren’t the only ones who need to be wary of digital gimmicks and distractions.

“I spend so much time on my iPad, I forget how much I like talking to people,” I overheard a young woman say as she and a friend took a morning walk. It sounded like the caption on a New Yorker cartoon, but she was not joking.  

September gives us a new start, a time to reassess our “e-lationships.” If we choose, we can set aside our devices from time to time to handwrite notes or letters, curl up with books with paper pages, and talk with friends in person. How revolutionary -- and modern!

©2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Why the rush to 2016? -- Aug. 21, 2014 column


Woo-hoo! She’s heading back to Iowa!

News that Hillary Clinton will attend Sen. Tom Harkin’s steak fry on Sept. 14 set off yet another wave of “she’s in” speculation among her fans.

Clinton has avoided the Hawkeye State since Barack Obama cleaned her clock in the 2008 Democratic caucuses.  She came in an embarrassing third, behind the now disgraced John Edwards.  

But both the queen of Democratic politics and her consort – that’s Bill Clinton -- will speak at Harkin’s 37th annual steak fry in Indianola, the last before the Iowa Democrat retires. It’s the event of the presidential preseason in Iowa, whose caucuses will launch the nation’s 2016 presidential contest. 

The way Hillary’s supporters see it: If Clinton is going to Iowa, she must be running for president. If she’s running, she’s the Democrats’ runaway choice. And if she’s the Democratic presidential nominee, hello, history.

Whoa, hoss.  We’ve seen inevitable Hillary before, circa 2006. Anything can happen.

The steak fry is a long 18 months before the caucuses, tentatively scheduled for Feb. 1.  The 2016 election – in which there may be a good Republican presidential nominee this time – is more than two years away. Let’s all take a deep breath. Americans don’t do coronations.

Even the most admired woman in America should have to make her case for the presidency to her party.  

Now is the time for Democratic activists to look at their options. Working a few steps from the president for eight years ought to count for something. A vice president used to have a leg up on the competition if he chose to run. 

Biden says he’s weighing his decision, but he’s not gaining traction. He served in the Senate for 36 years, including as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, but none of his former colleagues have endorsed him for president.
“It’s Hillary’s moment,” senators say, although many likely would decide, absent Hillary, that it’s Biden’s. One person who speaks highly of Biden is his boss.

“I think Joe would be a superb president,” Obama told Evan Osnos of The New Yorker. “He has seen the job up close, he knows what the job entails. He understands how to separate what’s really important from what’s less important.”

Perhaps most telling was this: “He’s got great people skills. He enjoys politics, and he’s got important relationships up on the Hill that would serve him well,” Obama said. Osnos’ profile of Biden was in the July 28 issue.

Poor Joe. He’s reduced to wishing weatherman Al Roker a happy birthday and cracking wise on the “Today” show.  How about Roker as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration?

“Look, if I were running the administration or the next one, I’d have you in it,” Biden said Wednesday on the show. “I mean, what the hell?”

And that brings us to Biden’s big challenge. Can he overcome his motor mouth and gaffes?

The good news for Biden is that Americans have short memories and most have forgotten about his brushes with plagiarism in law school and on the presidential campaign trail in 2007. He dropped out after he appropriated phrases from other politicians’ speeches.

In the Obama White House, Biden has worked mainly behind the scenes on foreign policy hotspots, but he could take a more visible role after the midterm elections. If the Senate were to split 50-50, he would be the tie-breaker and power broker.

Two Democrats who apparently see a president in their shaving mirror are Martin O’Malley, governor of Maryland, and Brian Schweitzer, ex-governor of Montana. In addition, if Clinton declines to run, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia and others might step up.

Among Republicans, the smart money is on former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, although he has been almost as coy as Clinton about his intentions. Analysts also mention Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Biden said in February his chances of running for president were 50-50. Having run twice, Biden is taking his time. He says he will campaign for Democratic candidates and raise money around the country, including Iowa and other early presidential states.

Whatever happens, Biden will be in a position to make his case.

©2014 Marsha Mercer

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Don't do stupid stuff, Uncle Sam -- Aug. 14, 2014 column


Maybe, as Hillary Clinton said, “Don’t do stupid stuff” isn’t a proper organizing principle for U.S. foreign policy. But it surely would be a welcome change here at home.

If only President Obama could order the federal government to stop doing stupid stuff on the home front, he might begin to rebuild people’s rock-bottom trust in government. Here’s a modest start: make sure federal workers pay their taxes.

It seems obvious to the point of absurdity that federal employees should pay what they owe or have their wages garnished, but it doesn’t always work that way.

For example, about 83,000 Pentagon employees and contractors who held or were eligible for security clearances owed $730 million in taxes in 2012, the Government Accountability Office reported last month. The median amount owed was $2,700, but people owed from $100 to millions of dollars. Most of the tax delinquents had no plan to repay their tax debt.

The report found that about 26,000 employees and contractors had access to classified information at the same time they owed federal taxes totaling $229 million, and about 6,200 of those had top-secret clearance. 

In other words, we are risking sensitive secrets to people who are vulnerable to financial pressure. As the report said, someone who is “financially overextended is at risk of having to engage in illegal acts to generate funds.”

The personal finances and tax situations of applicants for security clearances are supposedly considered, but federal law does not expressly prohibit someone with unpaid tax debt from receiving clearance. Records don’t indicate how often clearance is denied because of unpaid taxes.

Naturally, the GAO’s report prompted outrage on Capitol Hill.

“Federal tax cheats with security clearances jeopardize both our national and economic security, and could unnecessarily put our nation’s classified information at risk,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., in a statement. Coburn has been talking about cracking down on federal workers who don’t pay their taxes for years.  In the House, a bill to fire federal workers with unpaid tax bills failed last year.
But the problem doesn’t exist just at the Pentagon.

Congress could start by cleaning up Capitol Hill. About 3.24 percent of Senate workers and 4.87 percent of House workers owed $8.6 million in taxes as of last Sept. 30, according to IRS data released in May under a Freedom of Information Act request by USA Today. That’s 714 tax delinquents on Capitol Hill. The IRS didn’t say whether any members of Congress were delinquent.
At the White House, 36 of nearly 1,800 workers owe on their taxes for a tax delinquency rate of 2 percent. 
In all, more than 318,000 federal workers and retirees owed $3.3 billion in back taxes, USA Today reported. That’s slightly more than 3 percent.

To be fair, the proportion of tax delinquents is far higher among people not working in government than among those who do. The IRS estimates that 8.7 percent of taxpayers overall owe tax bills.

Still, it’s maddening that federal workers are skipping out on their taxes.  Not even all IRS workers pay their fair share. About 1.2 percent of IRS employees are tax scofflaws.

Even worse, some of the tax delinquents at IRS got bonuses. IRS awarded more than 1,100 employees more than $1 million in cash, 10,000 hours off and 69 step increases or promotions within a year that their tax compliance problems were substantiated, according to a report last March by the Treasury inspector general for tax administration.

For its part, IRS responded that it had examined the policies of 15 federal agencies and 13 states and found that only one agency had a rule against granting a bonus in cases of misconduct.  

It’s no wonder Americans’ trust in government has sunk to a record low. Only 13 percent of people say government in Washington can be trusted to do what’s right all or most of the time, a new CNN-IRC International Poll found. About three in four say they trust government only some of the time, and one in 10 say they never trust Washington.
Lack of trust maybe epidemic but it needn’t be inevitable. A first step to restoring people’s confidence is to ensuring that federal employees pay their taxes.  Government doesn’t have to do stupid stuff.

©2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Ike deserves better -- Aug. 7, 2014 column


While controversy rages about how to memorialize Dwight D. Eisenhower, bells chime on Capitol Hill in a lasting, impressive memorial to Robert A. Taft, a man few Americans probably remember.

That’s not a knock on Taft. The Republican from Ohio served in the Senate from 1939 until his death in 1953. He is honored a block north and west of the U.S. Capitol on Constitution Avenue with a 10-foot bronze statue and a simple, 100-foot marble carillon. You can hear the beautiful bells chime on Capitol Hill on the hour and quarter hours. 

But it is a sign of our peculiarly dysfunctional Washington that Ike – the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe in World War II, the man who ended Taft’s presidential ambitions in the 1952 GOP primaries and served two terms as president -- has been “memorialized” so far by costly bickering and ego wars.

In the case of Taft, who was Senate majority leader, Congress authorized the memorial in 1955, and public subscriptions from around the country totaling more than a million dollars paid for it.

President Eisenhower dedicated the memorial in 1959, six years after Taft’s death, and former President Herbert Hoover said, "When these great bells ring out, it will be a summons to integrity and courage." 

In the case of Eisenhower, who died in 1968, Congress authorized a memorial in 1999 and a commission to study the “nature, design, construction and location” of the memorial. The commission has a full-time executive staff of nine, six part-time or contract workers and offices on K Street.

Taxpayers have spent $41 million, but after 14 years, there is no memorial, no acceptable design, not even a date for a ground-breaking ceremony, according to a scathing July 25 report by the majority (Republican) staff of the House Natural Resources Committee that called the memorial a “five-star folly.”

And the meter is running. Even before the commission picked a site or a design, its staff estimated that the memorial would cost $100 million and take up to six years to design and construct. 

The commission chose world-famous architect Frank Gehry and a four-acre site on Independence Avenue SW, across from the Air and Space Museum and adjacent to the Education Department.

Gehry’s firm has received $11 million in fees and is due an additional $3.3 million, the report said, but it has yet to deliver a design that meets the approval of the Eisenhower family or requirements of the Commemorative Works Act, a 1986 law that sets standards for memorials, or various commissions.

The family wants a memorial that’s “simple, sustainable and affordable,” Susan Eisenhower, Ike’s granddaughter, told Congress in 2013.

The most contentious design elements are 80-foot tall columns with huge stainless steel tapestries that would be woven and welded to show landscapes of Kansas, where Ike spent his boyhood. The Eisenhower family and others worry that about durability and the potential for snow, ice and trash to be caught in the scrim.

The group Right by Ike: Project for a New Eisenhower Memorial, says it’s time for Gehry to step aside and for the process to start over. The congressional staff oversight report made no recommendations, and the committee has not taken a vote.

Congress has pulled the plug on construction appropriations and is funding only commission salary and expenses, about $2 million in 2013 and $1 million this year. A bill in Congress would dissolve the commission and appoint new members.

In response to the report, memorial commission chairman Rocco Siciliano likened the current controversy to the uproar over the Vietnam Veterans Memorial more than 30 years ago. Many vets disliked Maya Lin’s design and insisted on construction of a separate statue with flag nearby, ‘’yet it is now the most visited memorial in Washington,” he said. The earlier controversy is largely forgotten.

“It is unfortunate that history appears to be repeating itself with the Natural Resources Committee staff unfairly and inaccurately attacking Frank Gehry, the commissioners and staff,” Siciliano said.

Gehry, in a statement to The New York Times, said he has worked on the design pro bono and regrets seeing the project “engulfed by the political process.”

Another historical note: Robert Taft’s father, William Howard Taft, was the first president to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. His family paid for the 14-foot memorial there.  

It may be time for the Eisenhower family to take over planning and fund-raising for a memorial that is indeed “simple, sustainable and affordable.” Ike deserves better than this.

 ©2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.