Saturday, February 26, 2011


We have recently been treated to editorials, op-ed columns, and letters-to-the-editor fulminating about legislation Wisconsin Republicans are trying to enact. Governor Scott Walker, who proposes to reduces the privileges and scope of bargaining of state employee unions, seemingly is a prime candidate for the national ogreship.

Columnist Tim Rutten, for example, accuses Walker of enacting “a series of tax breaks that eliminated what would have been a budget surplus” and using the resulting deficits as an excuse to attack the unions. Numbers do matter, however, and the tax reductions in question were a tiny fraction of the several billion dollars Wisconsin will soon be in the red if something drastic isn’t done. If Rutten’s claim were true, the unions would hardly agree to the wage and fringe benefit concessions that they have said they will accept.

Apparently union leaders are less concerned with protecting members’ wages than they are with protecting the income received from members’ dues. The governor proposes to stop automatic withholding of union dues from state employee salaries. When this was done temporarily in New York City, after an illegal transit strike, union income fell about 35%.

It is strange to denounce as anti-labor a measure that would merely make payment of dues voluntary rather than compulsory. If unions are beneficial to their members, do the critics think they are too stupid to know their own interests?

If Governor Walker is an ogre, what about Franklin D. Roosevelt, the father of modern labor law in the U.S? Roosevelt felt that collective bargaining by government employees would be a horrible idea. Government employees were pointedly not included when the National Labor Relations Act was written during the 1930s.

Unlike private employees, whose employers risk bankruptcy if they pay higher wages than they can afford, government workers have no incentive to be reasonable in their wage demands. Their work cannot be outsourced to China. We have therefore been moving towards a two-class society, with government workers protected from many of the dangers afflicting private workers. Many have even received taxpayer-financed raises while most other workers are hurting.

Nobody likes salary reductions. If I were a government employee, I would be just as unhappy as anybody about it. But something has to give, and unfortunately public employees are the next in line to take a hit. Either their wages and fringe benefits will be reduced, or a large number of them will be laid off. If layoffs were based on a lottery rather than seniority, one can bet that their willingness to allow fellow workers to be thrown to the wolves would be greatly reduced.

If Governor Walker’s proposals are implemented, however, there is one way public workers can mitigate reductions in their income. We are told that union dues in Wisconsin now range from $500 to $1000 a year (the latter amount for teachers). Those who prefer to stop paying union dues can thus reduce the decrease in their disposable income without having to negotiate it with anyone.

Wisconsin’s troubles are not unique. Oregonians should observe how things turn out in Wisconsin and see if that gives us any ideas we can use here.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Wisconsin: Unprincipled analysis by Paul Krugman

I have just sent off a letter-to-the-editor at the New York Times about Paul Krugman's piece in today's issue claiming that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's proposed legislation removing many privileges from the labor unions representing govenment employees is an attack on democracy. The article can be read here.

Here is my letter:

To the editor:

Paul Krugman, commenting on December 20, 2009 on the health care legislation:

“It was, however, a close-run thing. And the fact that it was such a close thing shows that the Senate — and, therefore, the U.S. government as a whole — has become ominously dysfunctional.

“After all, Democrats won big last year, running on a platform that put health reform front and center. In any other advanced democracy this would have given them the mandate and the ability to make major changes. But the need for 60 votes to cut off Senate debate and end a filibuster . . . turned what should have been a straightforward piece of legislating into a nail-biter.”

Paul Krugman, commenting on February 21, 2011 on the situation in Wisconsin:

“So will the attack on unions succeed? I don’t know. But anyone who cares about retaining government of the people by the people should hope that it doesn’t.”

Mr. Krugman, meet Mr. Krugman! Republicans “won big” in Wisconsin last November. But Krugman now turns 180 degrees and says this has not “given them the mandate and the ability to make major changes.”

Unprincipled invoking of principles is not uncommon in politics. But Krugman is supposed to be an analyst, not a spin-doctor. He should be ashamed of himself.

Paul F. deLespinasse, Ph.D.

Corvallis, Oregon

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Coming soon: Atlas Shrugged, the movie!

One of my former students in the Great Current Books class at Adrian College has just tipped me off that Atlas Shrugged, one of the books we read, is being made into a movie. Details here.

In the Great Current Books classes, which met at our house on Wednesday evenings during my last eight years at the College, I always used open-book, take-home final exams. Students would write an essay discussing one of a dozen or more alternate questions. One question I liked to ask was to consider the problems and opportunities that would be presented in making the book into a movie. Although I never said so, I always thought that turning Atlas Shrugged into a movie would be nearly impossible, though perhaps not quite as impossible as one of the other books we read in that class, Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (not to mention T8me Enough For Love, another Heinlein work we also read!). So I'll be very interested to see how this movie turns out.

This movie is billed as "Part I" of three parts, and as I recall some students thought Atlas Shrugged might be best as a miniseries rather than a single film, so they must have been on to something.

If any of the students who took this class sees this blog, I'd enjoy hearing their reactions after they see the movie!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Another thoughtful response to "If I ran an editorial page"

I have received another editor's thoughtful response to my analysis "If I ran an editorial page", and with her kind permission am reprinting it here.


The Gazette-Times' editorials result from a consultation among three editorial board members. We meet almost every week, and although we don't always agree on local issues, we reach an agreement that manages to include aspects of the issue and reach a conclusion.

There is no royal "we"; it's two editors and our circulation manager.

I wouldn't buy a newspaper whose editorial page did nothing more than raise questions.

Also, when a newspaper reveals its editors' own take on controversial issues, that keeps it honest. It allows readers to decide just how fairly we're reporting an issue in our news pages when they know how we feel about it from the position we've take on the editorial page.

This is most relevant because we focus as much as possible in letters and editorials on local matters, and I'm not at all shy about saying that our newspapers -- and newspapers in general -- continue to be the go-to source for local news that is so often ripped off by "aggregate" internet news sites, the radio and even other publications.

We don't know everything, but the issues of Corvallis and Benton County concern us the most.

That makes it important that we remain relevant to our readers, which includes having our clearly stated opinion. They're never shy about letting us know when they disagree.


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Excellent criticism of my article, "If I ran an editorial page"

A newspaper editor to whom I sent "If I ran an editorial page" (see below), not for publication but because I thought he might be interested in it, sent me the following very thoughtful (and persuasive!) reply. I am posting it here, with his permission.

Dear Paul:

Thanks for these comments. By and large I have found that editorials need to stimulate, and to do that they can't seem indecisive. That's why question-mark editorials for me are the exception, and used only as a last resort. I don't usually intend to be wrong, but I would rather be wrong than sound tepid. I have found that making strong assertions is the best way to get reaction from people who know better. Especially in Corvallis, readers are not shy about telling me how misinformed or wrong-headed I am about lots of things. I could be wrong, again, but I don't think always and only asking what people think is the best way to operate an editorial page.

I'm grateful, obviously, for thoughtful readers such as you, and for your occasional contribution.

Best wishes,


Saturday, February 5, 2011


As an editorial page junkie, at breakfast I read the editorial pages of the Gazette-Times, The Oregonian, and the Wall Street Journal, in that order. Later, I scrutinize the editorials, op-eds, and letters-to-the-editor in the on-line New York Times and the Daily Telegram from Adrian, Michigan, where our family lived for 36 years.

Editorial pages are not just something I read. About 35 years ago I started writing op-ed pieces that have appeared from time to time in a number of states including California, Montana, Ohio, and Arkansas as well as Oregon and Michigan. My letters-to-the-editor have appeared in Oregon and Michigan and recently two were published in the Wall Street Journal. For a few months about 35 years ago my wife Doris and I jointly wrote all of the editorials for the Adrian newspaper when they had an emergency.

After all this reading and writing, I can’t help having ideas about what makes for a good editorial page and how existing pages could be improved.

Editorials (especially, I think, in the bigger newspapers) often pontificate about matters which the writers have not thought long and deeply about and about which they may not be well-informed. Of course we need to recognize that no one person can know everything about everything, and editorial writers are merely human. And our evaluation of an editorial should not just be based on whether we agree with it or not. But the fact that editorials are usually unsigned and tend to speak with a royal “we” (“we think that . . .”) gives them a level of sanctity which is often undeserved. Then most papers place strict word limits on letters or op-ed columns seeking to express disagreement with such editorials. (The Gazette-Times is unusually generous in its word limits.)

It seems to me that most editorials should therefore be written in the form of questions rather than of assertions. Although editors cannot be experts on everything, they should be able to identify important issues and write thought-provoking editorials pointing out some of the dimensions of those issues and noting some of the questions that must be answered in determining what to do about them.

A city like Corvallis, for example, has experts on every conceivable subject at O.S.U., Hewlitt-Packard, Good Samaritan Hospital and many other places. An editor here could play the role of a seminar leader, writing editorials ending in question marks and positively encouraging community members whose experience and perspective could contribute to our thinking to write letters and op-ed columns in response. The responses and dialog would contribute to the continuing education of all of us, including the editor.

The subject matter of these editorials and resulting letters and columns, while not neglecting local issues, should also include national and world issues. These always have local ramifications. Medical insurance policy, for example, is a national issue with a major impact on everyone here in Corvallis.

If I were an editor, therefore, I would write mostly question-mark editorials and minimize publication of in-house or nationally syndicated op-ed columnists (who have to say something several times a week whether or not they have anything to say). This would maximize the space for thoughtful letters and locally-written op-ed columns by the largest variety of knowledgeable people possible.

And I would run occasional free seminars to help these people write better letters and op-ed columns.