Raising Minimum Wage Reveals Partisan Divide

Published in Pawtucket Times, January 31, 2014

On January 28, 2014, President Barack Obama gave his 2014 State of the Union (SOTU) a whopping  6,778 word speech, calling on both Chambers of Congress to either work with him to move the country forward or forcing him to use his presidential powers to enact  policy.

“America does not stand still, — and neither will I,” the President told a jam packed Chamber.  If Congressional gridlock continues, the President warned, “So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”   This would be accomplished by using executive orders, presidential memorandums to enact policies if lawmakers choose not to act on.

Congress to Debate Merits of Minimum Wage

            In a little over an hour, Obama rattled off dozens of policy initiatives for Congress to consider this session, including immigration, emergency unemployment, manufacturing, trade, environment, education, closing Guantanamo Bay, closing tax loop holes, job training, family policies, and retirement savings.  But the President also called for an increase in the nation’s minimum wage to provide America’s worker’s a living wage.  With Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates gearing up their campaigns to take the Ocean State’s top General Officer seat, look for ratcheting up the state’s minimum wage to hotly debated throughout the nine month political campaign.

             While Obama’s push to raise the minimum wage was derailed last year by the GOP House and its Tea Party Faction, the Democratic president noted that five states have already passed laws to raise theirs (including Rhode Island).

             With corporate profits and stock prices climbing, average wages “have barely budged,” observed the President.  “Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled.  The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by – let alone get ahead.  And too many still aren’t working at all,” he said.

             The President used his speech as a very visible bully pulpit to call on States to not wait for Congressional action to raise the nation’s minimum wage, to give people a living wage.

              Until Congress acts, it is up to businesses to voluntary give their employees a living wage or State legislators to mandate an increase.  Obama urged the nation’s business leaders to follow the lead of John Soranno, the owner of Minneapolis-based Punch Pizza, who has given his employees a raise to $10 an hour.  Large national corporations, should join profitable companies like Costco, the President urged, that “see higher wages as a smart way to boost productivity and reduce employee turnover,” he said,

             Through an executive order the President announced in his SOTU address last Tuesday evening that he would ratchet up the minimum wage of federal contractors to $10.10 per hour, “because if you cook for our troops’ meals or wash their dishes, you shouldn’t have to live in poverty.”  

             “Today, the federal minimum wage is worth about twenty percent less than it was when Ronald Reagan first stood here,” the President quipped, noting that legislation to increase the nation’s minimum wage to $10.10 has been introduced by Senator Tom Harkin,  a Iowa Democrat who is retiring after serving almost 40 years in Congress, and Democratic Congressman George Miller, from California, also leaving office after 20 terms.

 Two Sides of the Coin          

            Although creating jobs will be one of the top campaign issues that must be addressed by the State’s gubernatorial candidates (Clay Pell was not available for comment by press time), look for the minimum wage issue to pop up for political discussion with the Democratic and Republican views being like two sides of a coin.

            When he announced his bid for governor, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras he told his supporters that increasing the minimum wage is a step in building an economy that supports higher paying jobs, puts people back to work and gives Rhode Island families the opportunity for a better life. There was a time when his mother worked at the minimum wage to support three children so he knows firsthand how much raising it can help a family, he stated. He is also pushing for statewide universal pre-kindergarten.

            Tarveras quoted from a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute that indicated that increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour would increase the wages of 65,000 Rhode Island workers and indirectly benefit an additional 26,000 more, totaling nearly 20 percent of the work force.  He cited another study that found that moving to a higher wage would boost the national economy by as much as $22.1 billion, creating as many as 85,000 new jobs.”

            “I’m a Democrat who believes in raising the minimum wage and indexing it with regular cost of living adjustments,” noted Treasurer Gina Raimondo, in her announcement to run for Governor at Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket.

            According to Eric Hyer’s, Gina Raimondo’s Campaign Manager, “Gina strongly believes that we need to increase the minimum wage and she was pleased to see President Obama call for increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour during the State of the Union this week.  No one who works full time should live in poverty.  As the President said, it is time to give America a raise.”

             “But let’s not wait for a dysfunctional Congress to act; we can take action right here in Rhode Island,” states Hyer.

            “Gina is calling for us to take action on this now and raise the minimum wage to $10.10 by 2015 and then index it to the cost of living so that politicians can’t play games with people’s lives. Two-thirds of minimum wage earners are women so a raise would immediately help women across Rhode Island and their families, adds Hyer, noting that people are really struggling and there is an urgency to help out working families.

             But, the Rhode Island’s GOP candidates, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung and Businessman Ken Block, are not buying the Democratic candidate’s solution that minimum wage is the way to go.

             “Democrats continue to recycle bad ideas. It’s time we consider some new ones so people have the opportunity to succeed and thrive, and not rely on government coercion to dictate wages. Increasing the minimum wage will result in higher unemployment, reduced job opportunities, reduced customer spending, and will reduce net job growth because of the effect on expanding companies,” says Mayor Fung

             Mayor Fung states “At a time when we are tied for the highest unemployment in the country, we cannot put more hurdles in front of the companies we have here in Rhode Island; we need to remove them. Further, Obama Care is already hurting workers because employers are transitioning employees to part time work because they cannot afford the healthcare premiums. An increase in the minimum wage would only increase the burden on small business owners who are already working on thin margins.”

             “The real issue in Rhode Island is unemployment and getting our workforce prepared with the necessary skill set for the ever changing workforce. It is quite evident that raising the minimum wage would not solve these problems,” adds Fung.

            Gubernatorial candidate Ken Block agrees with Fung, noting in a recent statement, “”As I said the other day when it was announced that Rhode Island has the worst unemployment in the country, raising the minimum wage is a job killer.”

            Block adds, “President Obama seems to believe that government can just order the economy to improve. Republicans and Independents know that government has a critically important, but limited role in the growth of jobs. Government’s role is to regulate fairly and only where necessary, and to control its spending so people and businesses are not taxed to death. President Obama continues on the wrong track to fix lagging employment, just as the Democratic leaders of our General Assembly continue on the wrong track to fix Rhode Island.”

            But Edward M. Mazze, Distinguished University Professor of Business Administration, at the University of Rhode Island, has entered the policy debate, too.

            On the one hand, “Raising the minimum wage does not create jobs and can reduce the number of hours worked for existing workers and the number of jobs for part-time workers. There could also be an impact on the number of internships offered to high school and college students.  And, just as important, raising the minimum wage will also raise the price of products and services, observes Mazze.

             “The minimum wage is not the entry point to middle class, it is the jobs that pay over $20 an hour and have a “career” future, says Mazze, noting that Rhode Island recently increased the minimum wage.

             But, Mazze believes that the state’s minimum wage should be adjusted every number of years to keep up with inflation and other economic events.  “The best way to create living wages in Rhode Island is to prepare workers for jobs for the future, have an economic development strategy that creates jobs and attracts businesses, and have affordable housing and a fair sales, property and personal income tax program,” he notes.

             With the Rhode Island General Assembly geared up to pass legislation to make the Ocean State an easier place to do business, lawmakers should not forget their constituents who cannot pay their mortgage, utility bills, or even put food on their tables.  Until the State’s tax and regulatory system primes the economic pump to create more jobs, giving a little bit more money, say $10.10 per hour, will go a long way for tens of thousands of poor or working poor Rhode Islanders who struggle to survive.

            How can Rhode Islander’s currently making a weekly paycheck of $320 (minus taxes), receiving a minimum wage, support their families?  This is not the American Dream they were brought up to believe in.

             Herb Weiss, LRI’12 is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers, aging, health care, medical and business issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

 

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Oxfam Report: Elites Get Richer; Poor Poorer

Published in Pawtucket Times, January 24, 2014

Just a week before the 44th annual gathering of the global elite at World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Oxford, England-based Oxfam International released a scathing report claiming that global wealth rests in the hands of just a few very rich people.

According to the report released on Jan. 20, co-authored by Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva, Head of Research, Oxfam Great Britain and Nicholas Galasso, Research and Policy Advisor, Oxfam America, 85 of the wealthiest people own the same amount of wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population.

Widening Income Gap Between Wealthy and Poor

Oxfam’s 31 page report, “Working for the Few,” warns that almost half of the world’s wealth concentrated in just one percent of the population, is a real threat to inclusive political and economic systems, and compounds other economic inequalities – such as those between women and men. The authors say, left unchecked, political institutions are undermined and governments overwhelmingly serve the interests of economic elites – to the detriment of the poor and middle class.

Today the gap between the rich and poor has become wider, with the wealth of the one percent richest people in the world amounting to $110 trillion, adds the report, around 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population. In the United States, the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.

“Without a concerted effort to tackle inequality, the cascade of privilege and of disadvantage will continue down the generations,” warns Oxfam’s Executive Director, Winnie Byanyima, in her statement announcing the release of her group’s report. She leads the world-wide development organization comprised of 17 organizations working in 90 countries to find solutions to poverty and related injustice around the world.

Byanyima, a grass-roots activist, human rights advocate and a world recognized expert on women’s rights, who plans to attend the Davos meeting, observes, “It is staggering that in the 21st Century, half of the world’s population owns no more than tiny elite whose numbers could all sit comfortably in a single train carriage.”

“We cannot hope to win the fight against poverty without tackling inequality. Widening inequality is creating a vicious circle where wealth and power are increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, leaving the rest of us to fight over crumbs from the top table,” says Bryanyima.

Bryanyima adds, “In developed and developing countries alike, we are increasingly living in a world where the lowest tax rates, the best health and education and the opportunity to influence are being given not just to the rich but also to their children.”

“Without a concerted effort to tackle inequality, the cascade of privilege and of disadvantage will continue down the generations,” states Bryanyima, noting that “We will soon live in a world where equality of opportunity is just a dream.”

Specific policies have widened the income gap between the rich and poor over the last decades, including financial deregulation, tax havens and secrecy, anti-competitive business practice, lower tax rates on high incomes and investments and cuts or underinvestment in public services for the majority. For instance, since the late 1970s, tax rates for the richest have fallen in 29 of the 30 countries for which data are available. In these places the rich not only get more money but also pay less tax on it.

Oxfam’s report calls on those gathered at this week’s World Economic Forum to take tackle inequity by cracking down on financial secrecy and tax dodging, including investing in universal education and healthcare; demand a living wage in all companies, and agreeing a global goal to end extreme inequality in every country.

Inequity in Our Back Yard, Too

Commenting on Oxfam’s report release, Robert B. Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton who now serves as Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, notes that inequality in the United State is not “that far off” from other countries. “Here, the 400 richest Americans have more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans put together. We’re getting close to a tipping point where inequality undermines our economy (because the vast middle class doesn’t have the purchasing power to keep the economy going), hurts our democracy (because a handful of extremely rich individuals can control politics), and causes most people to feel the dice are loaded against them, he says.

Reich’s award-winning documentary “Inequality for All” — now out on iTunes, DVD, and On Demand — explains the roots of inequality, in the U.S. and around the world. For details, go to http://www.inequalityforall.com.

Kate Brewster, Executive Director of Rhode Island’s The Economic Progress Institute, notes that Oxfam’s report puts the growing problem of inequality on the world stage. “As the experts point out, inequality is not inevitable, but a manmade problem that can be tackled with policies that reward everyone for hard work, not just a few,” she says.

“Rhode Island has not escaped this disturbing trend,” states Brewster. According to a report issued by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Ocean State experienced the 9th largest increase in income inequality in the country between the late 1970s and mid-2000s. During this time the income of the top fifth rose by 99 percent while the bottom fifth grew by only 12 percent, she says.

Legislative Fixes to Reduce Income Gap

Brewster says there are two “two concrete policies” that the Rhode Island General Assembly could enact this legislative session that would immediately boost the income of low-income Rhode Islanders and begin to reverse this trend, specifically increasing the state’s minimum wage and increasing the refund available through the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit. “The latter would not only boost the income of low-wage workers but also bring more equity to a tax structure that has provided significant tax breaks to wealthy individuals and businesses for years,” she says.

Advocate Susan Sweet, a former state official and lobbyist for nonprofit groups, notes that while Rhode Island and the nation don’t have an overwhelming majority of citizens suffering the worst extremes of poverty such as starvation, homelessness and societal abandonment that exists in some other countries, we have our share. We also have a large and expanding underclass of counter culture and underground economy that serves to hurt the cohesiveness of society,” says the Rumford resident.

Sweet worries about the income gap between the poor and wealthy that will happen in years to come because of state policies. “The state took millions away from retired people who are receiving an average of $25,000 a year in their state pension and are in their seventies on average. The state gambled on the Studio 38 boondoggle, sold these risky bonds to unknown parties, and want to pay these gambling debts back to the investors because they have a ‘moral obligation’ to do so. Where is the moral obligation to those who performed their responsibilities by working for the state for many years with the promise of a secure retirement?” she says.

And what does she expect to see coming out of the General Assembly? “This year we will hear rhetoric to raise the absurdly low minimum wage in the nation and in the state, but not enough to give workers a decent living wage; we will hear promises to improve education, while students that have tried to achieve under great odds will be denied high school diplomas while the educational infrastructure remains in place and unchanging; we will be assured that the key to R.I.’s unyielding high unemployment rate has been found – again; and we will continue on the path of inequality.”

Oak Hill resident, Lisa Roseman Beade, an academic tutor who is been active in Progressive causes, says the U.S. has the widest income gap of any developing nation. “’Trickle down economics’ has turned into “vacuum upwards economics”. We need fair wages and fair and equitable taxation rates to circulate the money. That’s what puts people to work and will reduce the widening income gap between the nation’s wealthy and poor. Instead, workers, who have been breaking the bar in productivity year after year, now receive only 1 percent of the record breaking profits.”

Beade calls for keeping corporate dollars out of politics and supports the creation of a single payer healthcare system that would make healthcare a civil right.

She believes that change will only come when “we all stop the scape-goating teachers and workers and public employees and demand that we all have good wages, good benefits and good pensions and by restoring state levels to those pre-1998. If lower taxes create jobs, and taxes have never been lower…where are the jobs?”

“A vibrant, safe and livable community with good community services can only come if everyone earns enough and everyone pays their fair share of taxes. Let’s make paying taxes patriotic again,” says Beade.

A Final Note…

It’s time to hammer out a comprehensive legislative fix to reducing the wide income gap between the Ocean State’s wealthy and poor. Let those declared candidates for Governor come out with detailed briefing papers, unveiling their comprehensive approach to enable Rhode Islanders to finally make a living wage. That is tell the voters how you will close the income gap between the state’s have and have nots. Let the debate begin.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a writer who covers aging, health care, medical issues and Rhode Island’s political scene.

Collette’s Employees Key to Soaring Profits

Published in Pawtucket Times, July 17, 2014

During one of the most devastating economic downturns since the Great Depression, companies throughout the nation put hiring decisions on hold, even slashing employee benefits and compensation. But, savvy CEOs create employee benefits and compensation, to retain their good workers and grow their businesses. Yes, they know that employees play a key role in positively impacting their bottom-line, even ensuring their organizations financial survival in really bad times.

Just listening to talk radio and you will continually hear how the high cost of doing business in the Ocean State, fueled by taxes and regulation, drives businesses out-of-state in droves. But, business is booming at Pawtucket-based Collette and its CEO and President Dan Sullivan, Jr., can easily tell you why – his 544 employees.

With Rhode Island and Nevada tied for having the highest unemployment rate in the nation, Collette, one of the oldest tour operators in the nation, is looking to fill jobs. “We are doing everything we can to improve the employment statistics in Rhode Island,” said Sullivan. “Right now, Collette is focused on growth and acquiring great talent right in our own backyard and increasing job opportunities.”

Back in 1918, when founder Jack Collette established the travel company, World War I had just ended. The Boston Red Sox had won the World Series and porterhouse steak was 54 cents pre-pound. The company’s first tour left Boston for Florida, taking their customers on a three-week adventure for just $61.50. Today, Collette offers more than 150 tours to destinations across seven continents.

Company Values Employee Longevity

According to Sullivan, Collette, now a third generation family owned company, has been honored seven times as the Best Places to Work in Rhode Island. “It’s not just a job; the people love what they do,” observes Sullivan. Whenever Collette hires someone, the company wants the employee to be there for a long time. “We value longevity. We take care of our employees like family,” touts Sullivan.

Although Collette annually offers a performance-based incentive based on the company’s overall performance to its workforce, just two weeks ago every full-time employee who was hired before a designated date received an additional whopping $1,000 bonus at a company celebration held at the Rhode Island Convention Center.
Not bad when Rhode Island companies are slashing benefits and employee compensation.

At this celebration, most of Collette’s 544 employees including others joining them from the company’s offices near Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada and London, England, came to get a big thank you from Dan Sullivan Jr., along with his family and other top corporate executives. At a random drawing held that evening, 10 lucky full-time employees each received a $10,000 prize.

“This is to celebrate the success the team had this year,” says Sullivan. “In 2013, the company experienced a second consecutive year of record-breaking revenue and double-digit growth. With a 95-year track record, this is a major accomplishment. It’s our heartfelt ‘thank you’ to every employee for all they do to drive the company forward.”

The tradition of incentivizing Collette’s employees based on the performance of the company dates back several decades, notes Sullivan, who says that he wants all of Collette’s employees to “act as if they own the business and to reward them based on the performance of the company.”

Sullivan pointed out that the $1,000, which was on top of the company’s annual performance base incentive, was a result (77 percent of the employees received it) of one of the most profitable years in its long history. Collette is currently up over 37% in advanced reservations for 2014, too.

According to Sullivan, 82-year old Betty Sullivan, sister of the late Dan Sullivan, former President and CEO of Collette, was honored for her 50 years of service to the company. In recognizing her years of service, Collette gave her a new car.

To improve the health and quality of its employees’ lives, which in turn will enhance their productivity and competitiveness, last July Collette also built a 4,620 square foot Wellness Center that offers two levels of exercise areas and amenities for use by its employees and their families. It also includes one group exercise room, full facilities for men and women (locker room with showers, bathroom, etc.), towel service and more.

Life Long Learning

“Part of our long-term strategy is to rely on learning and critical skills development for growth and performance [of its employees],” said John Galvin, Chief Financial Officer for Collette. “Our goal is to develop and maintain a culture of learning in the organization – this is from the top down. Even the Executives are required to pursue continued learning. We want our entire team committed to continuous learning because this will make all of us more successful in the long run.”

Galvin says, “We offer classroom training for our in-house employees as well as newly hired members of the sales team. In 2013, we provided over 11,000 combined hours of training. Training will be made even more accessible to our outside offices with the use of our new video conferencing software.”

Tuition assistance is available to full-time employees who have worked here for six months, adds Galvin, noting that courses, up to two courses per semester, must be taken through an accredited program that’s job related. He notes that all courses have to be approved by an employee’s supervisor or manager and also by Human Resources Department. Once a grade is verified the employee’s tuition reimbursement will be processed.

Currently, there are 14 Collette employees enrolled in school for advanced degrees, and 215 employees are participating in multiple online training programs through the company’s innovative Learning Management System. In 2013 alone, Galvin states, “14 of our employees completed the Bryant Certificate program and four others completed degree programs earning a master’s, bachelor’s degree, and two earned associate’s degrees.”

As an employee perk, Collette even offers discounted tours to employees and FAM, or “Familiarization,” time off,” adds Jeni Wilson, Collette’s Vice President of Human Resources. “It gives employees a chance to become familiar with the products Collette sells without them having to tap into vacation time, and it is certainly a nice perk for employees and their families,” she notes.

Giving Back to Your Community

A sense of community even drives its charitable endeavors, says Sullivan, who notes that since 1997, his company has given more than $7 million to local and worldwide projects. Through employee-led initiatives, 20,000 children have received enhanced education; balanced nutrition; and clean water.

Sullivan says that Collette employees have the opportunity to designate four work hours each month to volunteer, too. In 2013, the Collette employee volunteers gave 2,263 hours to its communities.

“I feel like I get so much joy out of life that it is only fitting for me to try and give back,” said Chris Cahill, Collette’s Applications Developer. More specifically, the company allows its employees to travel worldwide and experience new cultures and Collette’s volunteer program gives them an opportunity to “give back to the communities they visit. An 11 year Collette employee, Cahill volunteers at Pawtucket Proud Day, the Rhode Island Food Bank and Tourism Cares event.

Collette has received kudos for its spirit of volunteerism. The company recently won a World Travel Market Global Award in recognition of its global philanthropic work over the past 12 months. Locally, Sullivan noted that his company was one of the local companies honored with The Ernie Marot Humanitarian Award Dinner by the Pawtucket Soup Kitchen. The award honored some of the kitchen’s most committed supporters.

Employees Are Assets

In Rhode Island or across the nation, successful companies view their employees and customers as their most valuable assets, says Edward M. Mazze former Dean of the College of Business Administration (from 1998 to 2006) at the University of Rhode Island. “To remain in business you must have the type of employee who is going to be loyal to your company and at the same time be customer-oriented,” he says.

Compensation and Benefit programs, like Collette, offers, will allow you to both motivate and compensate the best people, keeping them from going over to your competitor, says Mazze.

But it just makes good business sense to retain your employees rather then starting a job search to hire employees to fill vacant positions. “Giving a person a thousand dollar bonus is much cheaper than having to go into the market and fill the position,” adds Mazze.

Collette, like many over savvy companies, puts its dollars in its employees’ pockets, even supporting a myriad of worthy nonprofit causes both locally and globally. Collette is a perfect case study for other CEOs to look at – being penny-wise and pound foolish can be hazardous to your company’s bottom-line. Recognizing the importance of your employees’ role in meeting your business objectives will come back a thousand fold. Just ask Dan Sullivan, Jr.

For more information about Collette, visit http://www.gocollette.com.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, health care, medical and even business issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

Poll Calls Upon Congress to do “the people’s work”

Published in the Pawtucket Times, January 10, 2014

Four months ago, public anger reached a boiling point when the Republican-led House, controlled by its minority faction of Tea Party members, and the Democratic majority in the Senate failed to agree to an appropriations continuing resolution.
As a result of this budget impasse, a 16 day federal shutdown forced the furlough of 800,000 federal employees and another 1.3 million were required to report to work without known payment dates.

Public polls at that time blamed the GOP for turning its back on the nation by putting partisan politics first rather than doing the People’s business.” The popularity of Congress sank to a new historic low with heated partisan conflict echoing throughout the hallways of Congress.

Hammering Out an 11th Hour Deal

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) with the blessings of conservative groups, including the Heritage Action, the Club for Growth, Freedom Works, and the Senate Conservatives Fund, forcefully pushed House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to offer continuing resolutions not acceptable to President Obama and Congressional Democrats to politically force a delay or to defund the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (called “Obamacare”). Strong GOP opposition, spearheaded by Tea Party lawmakers, to raising the nation’s debt ceiling almost forced the government to run out of money to pay its bills.

After weeks of intense political bickering, Congress finally hammered out a political compromise, one that would open the doors of government, but also raise the debt ceiling to keep the nation from free-falling off the fiscal cliff. A failure to raise the debt ceiling could have resulted in the nation’s credit rating being downgraded. If this occurred, average Americans might have seen higher interest rates for mortgages, car loans, student loans and even credit cards. Higher business expenses, due to expensive borrowing rates, might have forced businesses to stop hiring or even to lay off employees. Housing prices might have drop and retail sales slow. The 11th hour compromise kept the American tax payer and business community from taking a huge hit in their pocketbook.

Although Cruz and Tea Party lawmakers in both chambers viewed shutting down the federal government and not raising the debt ceiling as a way to put excess government spending on the chopping block economy, there was economic damage. According to the economists at Standard & Poors, the total cost of the political gridlock to the nation’s economy that occurred before Christmas was estimated to be $24 billion.
Americans Lack Confidence in Congress

With the new Congressional session beginning this month, a new national poll released last week by AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs reveals that few Americans have faith in the current political status with Congress receiving low marks on its performance of upholding the views of most Americans while only 9 percent say it is doing a good job.

According to the poll that comes months after the first government shutdown in 17 years, 70 percent lack confidence in the federal government’s ability “to make progress on important issues facing the nation in 2014.”

However, the poll findings indicate that the respondents have a little bit more faith in their local and state governments, with 45 percent saying that they are at least moderately confident in their state government and 54 percent having at least moderate confidence with elected officials at the local level.

The federal government receives low marks on its performance. For instance, 55 percent believe the government is doing a poor job of representing the views of most Americans while only 9 percent say it’s doing a good job.

Meanwhile, the poll’s results find Americans are more pessimistic than optimistic on matters such as the nation’s ability to produce strong leaders, America’s role as a global leader, and the opportunity to achieve the American dream.

The People’s preferred agenda for the government in 2014 includes a diverse set of policy issues that range from economic problems to social policies to foreign affairs, notes the poll. Health care reform tops their list of priorities, mentioned by 52 percent of respondents as one of the top ten problems, followed by unemployment (42 percent), the economy in general (39 percent), and the federal deficit (31 percent).

“While it is very easy to ask people to choose a single ‘most important problem’ and to build a list for the answers, the reality is that government has to address many issues at the same time,” said Trevor Tompson, director of the AP-NORC Center. “This survey, with data about the public’s priorities on a range of policy issues, provides policy makers with rigorous data as they seek to understand the public’s outlook on where the country is now and what the action agenda should be for the year ahead.”

Wendy Schiller, Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Brown University, notes that the AP-NORC poll reveals “broader concerns expressed in national opinion polls, and by the average Rhode Islander “that our country seems to be slipping on lots of levels.”

Schiller, a frequent guest on Rhode Island PBS’s “A Lively Experiment,” notes that aging baby boomers and seniors worry about issues facing the younger generations, personal debt resulting from student loans to national debt. On the other hand, “Younger folks worry about how they will take care of their parents and grandparents, as well as providing for their own retirement,” she says.

“In a state like Rhode Island, which has such a strong family centered culture, these issues weigh heavily on almost everyone’s minds,” observes Schiller.

One of the poll’s positive findings was that the respondents did not cite healthcare for seniors as a pressing issue even though they did express concern over Social Security and health care reform, adds Schiller. “Preserving Medicare is as important, if not more, to the physical and financial well-being of seniors, so I found it striking that it was not as large a concern [as other issues].”

The polls negative findings of a distrust of government, rather than just a disappointment, concerns Schiller, noting that “Democracies do not fare well when the people lose faith in their government.”

As indicated by the poll, Schiller believes that Rhode Island state elected officials are viewed more positively by voters than those serving in Congress. But, 2014 will be a challenging year for them, especially with issues like the 38 Studios debacle, pension reform issues, and Rhode Island job growth. Schiller believes that “If the General Assembly can increase the trend towards greater transparency and accountability, than they might be able to reverse the downward slide of public faith in government.”

As noted in the poll, “public opinion about Congress is at an all-time low,” says Darrell M. West, Ph.D., Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. “People are disenchanted with the hyper-partisanship in Washington, D.C., and the inability of congressional leaders to address major policy problems, he says, noting that the government shutdown was very disturbing to mainstream and people now worry about Congress getting anything done.

West, a former Brown University professor and a prominent Rhode Island political commentator, does not see a major resurgence of bipartisanship in this Congress.
“The parties have incentives to highlight their differences rather than compromise their principles. That will make it difficult for the parties to work together, he says.

But West sees an indicator that the GOP might move away from its ties to the Tea Party that put a damper on reaching across the aisle to get the people’s work done. “The only promising sign is Speaker Boehner’s declaration of independence from the right-wing. A month ago, Boehner criticized outside conservative groups and said they had lost all credibility. If he really believes that, it may embolden him to work on immigration reform and pass needed legislation”, says West.

Because of the complexity of today’s domestic and foreign policy, the People want and need their elected officials to quit this partisan bickering and join together to solve the enormous problems that face the nation, warns well-know Rhode Island activist, Susan Sweet, a keen watcher of state, national, and global politics. “Without the political will to stand together and strengthen the People of America, this great experiment in democracy could decline and fall,” she says.

The AP-NORC national poll was conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research from Dec. 12-16, 2013, with 1,141 adults. Additional information about how the survey was conducted, including the survey report and the survey’s complete topline findings can be found on the AP-NORC Center’s website at http://www.apnorc.org.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

Some Simple Resolutions Can Better Your Life

Published in Pawtucket Times, January 4, 2014

Every year we see the Times Square ball swiftly drop as a million or so revelers loudly count down to one at the stroke of midnight. Also, we traditionally make New Year Resolutions to accomplish in the coming year to perform acts of kindness and for self-improvement.

Making a resolution for positive change goes back for eons. According to Wikipedia, the act of making a resolution can be documented in Mesopotamia (the territory of modern-day Iraq). Babylonians made promises to their stone deities to start off a new year by returning borrowed goods and paying off debts.

The free internet encyclopedia also notes that the Romans even carried out this tradition by making promises to Janus, the God of beginnings and transitions (for whom the month January is named). Knights during the Medieval era, from the 5th to 15th century, took a “peacock vow” after the Christmas season to re-affirm their commitment to knightly virtues of honor, courtesy love and courtesy.

Wikipedia also reports that even “watch services” held late on New Year’s Eve, also provided an opportunity for Christian parishioners to review the past year and make confessions and prepare for the New Year by prayer. Even Judaism’s High Holidays, from Rosh Hashanah ending with Yom Kipper, the Day of Atonement, gives worshipers an opportunity to reflect on their wrongdoings over the year to seek forgiveness and to prepare for the upcoming year, adds the internet website.

Memorable New Year Resolutions

Zoe Mintz, of the International Business Times, posted her thoughts about New Year Resolutions just hours before 2014, on the New York-based digital global publication’s web. Like clockwork, many of the nation’s newspapers and magazines, including Mintz, printed articles detailing interesting, inspirational and unusual resolutions from prominent people, from movies stars (they usually tweet) artists, politicians, writers, and corporate leaders.

Mintz details some well-thought out New Year Resolutions from people who you may well know.

“Let our New Year’s resolution be this: We will be there for one another as fellow members of humanity, in the finest sense of the word.” — Goran Persson, served as Prime Minister of Sweden from 1996 to 2006

“New Year’s resolution: To tolerate fools more gladly, provided this does not encourage them to take up more of my time.” — James Agate, British diarist and critic.

“I made no resolutions for the new year. The habit of making plans, of criticizing, sanctioning and molding my life, is too much of a daily event for me.” — Anaïs Nin, an American author, ‘

“One resolution I have made, and try always to keep, is this: to rise above the little things.” — John Burroughs, an American naturalist and essayist important in the evolution of the U.S conservation movement.

“I think in terms of the day’s resolutions, not the years.” — Henry Moore, an English sculptor and artist. He was best known for his semi-abstract monumental bronze sculptures which are located around the world as public works of art

“What the New Year brings to you will depend a great deal on what you bring to the New Year.” — Vern McLellan, author of Wise Words and Quote.

“Follow your passions, believe in karma, and you won’t have to chase your dreams; they will come to you.” — Randy Pausch, American professor of computer science and human-computer interaction and design at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is author of the “Last Lecture.”

Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.” — Mother Teresa, an Albanian-born, Indian Roman Catholic Religious Sister who founded the Missionaries of Charity which in 2012 consisted of over 4,500 sisters in 133 countries.

“If you asked me for my New Year resolution, it would be to find out who I am.” — Cyril Cusack, an Irish actor, who appeared in numerous films and television productions in a career lasting more than 70 years.

Everyday Resolutions

Resolutions may inspire or be a little bit ethereal, as detailed in the above listing compiled by Mintz. Simply put, our personal New Year’s resolutions help us cope with daily challenges to improve health, personal finances and relationships, that is to enhance our quality of life.

Many of your family and friends will be making their 2014 New Year’s resolutions to improve their health by eating healthy foods, losing weight or ratcheting up their exercise regimen. Everyone knows someone whose has made a resolution to either drink or smoke less, or not at all.

As the New Year approaches a person may say “Life’s too short,” when they begin to craft their personal resolutions. Attitude adjustments may well occur, when the person resolves to see “a glass half full rather than half empty,” making a commitment for the coming year to become a more positive person, one who looks forward to living life to the fullest. Even some may explore ways to reduce the stress in their lives.

A 2014 New Year resolution for others may just be to dig themselves out of credit card debt (cut those cards in half), regularly put money away for retirement, invest in the stock market or even to find a more satisfying job that pays better than their current one.

You might even see college students making their 2014 resolution to study harder to get that “A.” Some baby boomers and seniors may even chose to make this year the time to enroll at a local College or University to get a bachelor’s or graduate degree, or go to just learn new or sharpen up their existing skills.

For many, life may have become too routine and predictable, pushing them to schedule a trip to exotic places in the New Year. Some may choose to watch less television, committing to put their leisure time to a better use in 2014. One might resolve to become a volunteer at the local food kitchen, or helping the homeless, or even joining civic groups, like the Pawtucket Rotary Club or Lions club, or the Masons, to reach out to their community. Spending time helping those in need can also be a benefit for those volunteering – learning new skills, meeting new friends, advancing your career, or even improving mental and physical health.

New Year’s resolutions even help a person focus where their time, money and energy is directed. Everyone knows someone who is resolving to spend quality time in 2014 with family members. Some may even make resolutions to get engaged or married their long-time partner or to even begin a family.

With Christmas becoming so commercial, some may well make New Year resolutions that will push them away from materialistic pleasures, to exploring their spirituality.

Using Technology to Keep Resolutions

New technology can help keep us on track with keeping our 2014 New Year’s Resolutions. With the growing popularity of cell phones (iPhone and Android) thousands of self-help apps are now becoming available on app stores for IOS and Android cell phones, reports Business Reporter Victor Luckerson, in an article published on New Year’s Day on Time.com.

Luckerson details apps that will keep you on track with keeping your 2014 New Years resolutions. Here is a small sampling:

For learning the basics of a foreign language to prepare for a vacation, Duolingo helps you to quickly learn the basics. Users can easily review lessons in vocabulary, pronunciation, and basic grammar. Currently Duolingo offers lessons in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German and Italian. Available for iPhone and Android.

MyQuitCoach was created to help you keep cigarettes at arms length. The app uses data to help people curb their bad habit by allowing users to input how often they smoke and when they have their cravings. This information allows short and long-term goals to be set, enabling the smoker to reduce their daily cigarette use. Tying results to both Facebook and Twitter can increase support from social media friends. Available for iPhone.

For those who require motivation to go to their neighborhood gym, MapMyFitness is just the app for you. The app tracks 600 different fitness activities, from running, to ballroom dancing, to even walking the dog. With this app you can even map out effective jogging routes. It even offers a social component that allows your friends to motivate you to exercise from within the app. Available for iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry.

For resolutions to tighten your belt to improve your personal finances, check out DailyCost. The app easily allows you to closely check in going and outgoing money in all you bank accounts. Moreover, you can easily log in all your daily expenses, too, categorizing them within seconds. Weekly and monthly spending charts allow you to closely review where you spend your money. Available for iPhone.

Finally here’s an app to help you accomplish your resolution goals. Simply put, Lift helps you track how often you complete your tasks that you resolve to complete and rewards you with virtual check marks for achieving. Tasks can be drinking more water, praying, and other habits you want to change. App users who pursue the same goals can support each other via discussion groups. Available for iPhone and Android.

For this columnist, my 2014 New Year’s Resolutions (like many) revolve around health, financial and family. I resolve to become healthier by losing weight, eating healthier foods, and increasing my visits to the local YMCA; to get my financial house in order; and to spend more time with family and good friends. Maybe I might even write a book. As to my success, I will keep my fingers crossed.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.