Saturday, January 30, 2010

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same?

by Gordon Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, January 21, 2010

Governor Paterson made some new proposals and some news with his State of the State speech. Aware of his falling popularity and the state’s dismal fiscal woes, he attempted to cast a new light on some old problems and give the impression that he has an optimistic view of his ability to restore both his image and the state’s economy to respectability.

I applaud anyone who retains an optimistic view during these challenging times. I am sure our readers share my disdain for the whining politician who claims that all the troubling issues were inherited from previous administrations; and/or the one who uses fraudulent number games to claim certain jobs were saved or created in bogus congressional districts. So, to the end that Mr. Paterson remains positive, honest and confident about our future, I commend him.

His speech opened with an honest assessment of our challenges, an encouraging look backward at our successes and offered a realistic, though difficult, plan for our recovery. He spoke of balanced budgets, increased health care coverage, improved schools and job growth while rebuilding a crumbling infrastructure and cleaning up the environment. It could be classified as a very good speech and you can and should read it for yourself by logging on to .

However, I must also offer some concerns along with that commendation. Among his many proposals, Paterson has decided to stimulate job growth by eliminating the tired, sputtering diesel engine called the Empire Zones Program, and replacing it with a fresh, shiny hybrid engine called the Excelsior Jobs Program.

State Senator George Winner, among others, has been quick to run to the defense of the Empire Zones as a proven job creation enterprise. My initial response was to look at any press release from our senator and take it at face value and to cast a jaundiced eye toward any speech from our liberal-leaning governor. I decided to dig a little deeper and was surprised to find that I agree with some points of both parties, yet I also found areas that disturb me with each side.

First of all, I agree with Mr. Paterson that failed policies should be examined and removed when found to be clumsy and ineffective. As an engine of economic development, the Empire Zones may have started out as “a proven job producer” – according to Mr. Winner – yet the past few years has shown that the engine is leaking oil and the valves seem to be clanging. As with our own vehicles, there comes a time when we must admit that it is time to do a trade-in. That time has come.

After the aforementioned digging, I found an interesting report filed by the Citizens Budget Commission (CBC), a nonpartisan, nonprofit civic organization, in which they did an exhaustive and objective investigation of the Empire Zones program. This report opened my eyes to some serious issues faced by governmental entities that attempt to take on responsibilities that lie beyond the scope of their ability or mandate.

According to the CBC report, this program, which was initiated in 1986, was as fresh with promise and good intentions as Mr. Paterson’s Excelsior Zones is today. However, as with most government-run initiatives, it soon degraded to become a financial burden and a bureaucratic morass.

The following quote from a 2007 assessment, conducted by A T Kearney, consultants, speaks volumes:

…New York’s Empire Zones program provides the best example of good economic development intentions gone wrong. Its original mission has been morphed by political patronage, legislative revision and commercial manipulation, effectively repositioning it from a program primarily helping distressed communities to one routinely offering tax relief for ongoing businesses.

Mr. Winner claims that we should keep the program because businesses such as CVS, General Revenue, Sitel and others need this program to retain jobs in New York, because they ‘were targeted industries under the Empire Zone’. Mr. Paterson claims that the state needs to target ‘high technology, biotechnology, clean technology, finance (read Wall Street) and manufacturing’.

The problem with “targeting”, as anyone who has hunted or just enjoyed shooting-sports will affirm, when one is focusing on a target, the big picture is necessarily out of focus. The big picture is neglected when government tries to isolate one particular enterprise at the expense of the whole tax base. By offering tax credit incentives for one business, you are essentially passing the tax burden to other businesses and property owners.

It is my opinion that the Empire Zones Program has run its course. This vehicle has been worked over by the political mechanics for over 30 years and to keep her in working order, it would require another major overhaul that we cannot afford. In fact, after the last trip to the garage in 2000 the cost of the program rose from $30 million to over $582 million by 2008! However, I am not ready to slip into the driver’s seat of Paterson’s Excelsior mobile either.

I believe that the best method of creating a good atmosphere for jobs is to offer broad, sweeping tax cuts and targeted regulations, rather than the opposite.

Move Forward or Fall Behind

by Keith Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, January 21, 2010

During his recent State of the State address, Governor David Paterson announced a new strategy to replace the faltering Empire Zones business incentives with a plan known as the Excelsior Jobs Program.

Empire Zones were created during Mario Cuomo’s governorship as a way to revitalize economically troubled areas and draw companies and jobs to New York State. While the zones were credited with creating jobs, the system’s limitations, manipulation and bloated size led to a dwindling of its popularity over the last several years. Even supporters like State Senator George Winner (who criticized Paterson for eliminating the zones) have acknowledged the flaws and inadequacies of the system.

While the details of the Excelsior Jobs Program are still sketchy at this point, the intent of the proposal is to bring new jobs into the area in fields like technology, manufacturing and clean energy. The program also looks at payroll dollars for determining tax credits to be dispersed, which is intended to promote the quality of jobs and not just the quantity.

Of course, several critics have attacked Excelsior Jobs even before its provisions have been fully disclosed.

In an article in the Corning Leader, Shawn Hogan criticized the plan for focusing too closely on high-tech jobs and energy efficiency. It may not be surprising that he’s no fan of the program. As the current chairman of the Steuben County Empire Zone, Hogan is scheduled to lose his job in June when the zones expire. He posited that the focus on new directions might be a problem because the “Southern Tier is still based on manufacturing.” The problem with Hogan’s prediction is that it ignores the changing industrial climate in the area and in the United States.

Improved technology and international outsourcing has eliminated jobs in manufacturing as well as other labor markets. Failure to heed the shifting industrial environment will only result in a failing local economy as jobs disappear and are not replaced with innovative alternatives. Increased attention to new technologies is vital to the survival of any region.

Furthermore, Empire Zones have failed to boost manufacturing jobs in the Southern Tier.

Southern Tier Economic Growth’s president, George Miner, has criticized the elimination of the zones and the creation of Excelsior Jobs. As companies not targeted for tax credits under the new program, he listed CVS, Sitel, General Revenue Corporation, and American Customer Care. While these companies are expected to create new jobs, and while they would not be specifically targeted to receive incentives under the proposed plan, none of them improve the climate for manufacturing jobs. While citing numbers of jobs created may be an effective political feather to wear in one’s cap, drawing a bunch of low-paying call center and retail jobs into the area while hemorrhaging lucrative and skilled-labor careers will continue to be detrimental to the area.

Miner also raised concern that the new program has no mention of incentives to the gas exploration industry. This is an interesting observation. With the prospect of natural gas in the Marcellus shale, exploration in the region is inevitable. It seems illogical to imply that the industry needs tax credit incentives in order to lure gas companies to upstate New York. A focus, instead, on industries that are as yet untapped is what’s needed.

In order to address those unexplored industries, an arm of the Excelsior Jobs Program aims to provide incentive to investment in innovation. This shows the governor recognizes the fact that little advancement is made without the involvement of venture capitalists. This component of the plan is vague in its description according to Paterson’s release, but I would hope that its implementation will encourage innovation into new technologies, energy sources, and careers.

I agree with my brother Gordon that the time to trade in the Empire Zones program has come. I don’t know if Excelsior Jobs is the answer to economic woes in New York State. I do know that an approach that is grounded only in past performance, with no foresight into the challenges of the future, will spell disaster for our area, and many other regions in the state. The governor’s plan may fall short of success; it may become a bloated and wasteful system that does little more than provide political fuel to one side or the other. Or, it may work. I don’t think anyone can predict at this point. However, if industry leaders and local politicians fail to take a pro-active stance and recognize the changing industrial climate, economic devastation is certain. Any failure to move ahead is a step backward.

The “Decade from Hell”?

by Keith Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, January 7, 2010

Whenever we reach a milestone it seems natural to take time for foresight and reflection. As we enter the second decade of the 21st century – two milestones in one – we find it an even more monumental event.

A recent article in Time magazine referred to the first decade of the millennium as the “decade from Hell” among other descriptions. While some have seen my critical eye as pessimism, I cannot, with such a broad stroke, label the entire period as a dismal disaster.

Looking back on the past ten years I see highlights as well as low points. In my personal life I have had successes and achieved goals. I have celebrated blessings and good fortune. I have cherished the warmth of family and friends. As a nation we have witnessed triumphs as well as tribulations. Throughout the world a similar mix of positive and negative was experienced with global successes and failures.

After much fear and anticipation about the potential disaster the Y2K “bug” would bring, time ticked after midnight on 01/01/2000 with nothing of consequence. Then we continued to party like it was 1999.

Trouble came early in 2000 as the technology bubble burst, dashing the relative economic success of the Clinton years and sending the country into a mild recession. This occurred when many new media ventures and technology businesses were just taking off. While some accrued wealth and fortune other fledglings were swallowed in the collapse.

Politically, the decade began with a race that was disappointing to me personally. Only after years of hindsight do I now realize the folly of an administration with Senator Joe Lieberman a heartbeat away from the helm. Lieberman’s spineless caving to right wing bullying and his obstruction of progressive legislation would have been disastrous for the nation and have led me to graciously accept Al Gore’s loss of the Supreme Court battle.

There were, of course, undeniable tragedies in the ’00s. Most prominent were the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This was a dark day for the nation and a dark day for the world. The severity of our grief was softened only slightly by the spirit of unity that seemed to bridge our differences.

Unfortunately, this sense of goodwill was short-lived as the attacks were manipulated to springboard the nation into fear and rage, and then into two wars that have cost precious lives and billions of dollars.
A war in Afghanistan made sense when terrorist perpetrators were believed to be holed up within its borders. Allowing these masterminds to slip through our fingers out of neglect, however, was a tragic mistake. The spectacle that was the war in Iraq was a costly misdirection of resources, designed to take advantage of the rage and fear that gripped America at the time.

The success of the campaign used to market the Iraq war inspired by the same technique to justify any number of previously unthinkable acts. An administration that accepted preemptive aggression as a foreign policy officially sanctioned torture in the rendition of prisoners to nations who openly practiced the most extreme techniques. It implicitly encouraged extreme interrogation techniques by blurring lines of ethics and morality and applying a “by any means” attitude that led to atrocities like those committed in Abu Ghraib. The administration then set out to prosecute those ensnared at the bottom of the chain of command while attempting to wash its hands clean of blood and shame.

The decade was also peppered with other disasters such as the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, and the abysmal reaction by FEMA and the Bush administration. To be fair, the blame for much of the destruction and flooding rests in previous local, state and federal administrations that chose to neglect the decay and inadequacy of levees.

Economic and financial troubles plagued the country as well. Greed and a reliance on the market to police itself led to a collapse, which gathered steam and momentum in 2008 and plunged the United States into a deep recession (despite all attempts to avoid the “R” word). Shockwaves created by our excess and neglect rocked the global economic picture creating an atmosphere unprecedented in its scope. While measures have been taken to address the worsening recession, and while some indicators point to a recovery, the continued signs of decline in other areas is a testament to the severity of the situation. This is the consequence of unbridled greed and avarice, and it is clear to almost everyone who really believes in personal responsibility that business as usual is unsustainable.

The decade ended with the inauguration and beginning of a presidency that is historic in its importance. Critics of Barack Obama can complain about whatever favorable media coverage he has enjoyed during the campaign and his brief honeymoon period after his election. However, it is impossible to ignore that the fact that an African-American has attained the nation’s highest office has meaning and impact.

It is true that the hope for real change has been, as yet, unfulfilled. Much is still wrong in the world. Many hunger. Peace is still a conquest and not reality. Many suffer needlessly without access to sufficient healthcare. Jobless rates would be too high at half their current levels. Solutions to these problems are not visible on the near horizon.

But now that we have stood and looked back – now that we have sufficiently cursed the darkness – let us turn to that horizon. 2010 is the beginning of a new decade. Let us seize that opportunity and become part of the solution. Let us trade obstructive division for constructive action. Let us turn idle criticism into active citizenship. We can still hope for a brighter tomorrow. Perhaps in 2020, we can proudly reflect on the products of real change.


by Gordon Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, January 7, 2010

As we take down our old calendars and put up new ones, it is important to pause briefly and take a look back at the old, worn-out pages and review the triumphs and the tragedies that mark every passing year. Then as we look at the new, uncluttered pages, we should take another brief pause and consider what we may expect to see in our memories when we look backward from the last day of this year.

What did we see in 2009 that should help us to live better in 2010?
First of all, we saw a new political landscape develop before our eyes. As if every other presidential election was a minor, ho-hum, run-of-the-mill, every leap-year event, we were told over and over and over again, the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama was a historic event. Not only was he ushering in an era of hope and change, he would be doing so with his party controlling both houses of Congress; and the people of the United States – even the people of the whole planet – were anxiously awaiting this new era with great anticipation.

Well, as we tear off the final page of the 2009 calendar, we see less anticipation and more anxiety. The popularity slide of this president is as historic as his inauguration was supposed to be. At the time of the joyous swearing in he enjoyed an approval rating over 80% and the Nobel committee apparently assumed that accomplishment alone was worthy of their Peace Prize. So, the community organizer moved his charm and oratorical skills into the oval office, only to find that being the chief executive demanded more than being merely charming. The most recent Gallup poll, taken in December, showed less than 47% of the people polled approved of his job performance and the numbers for his Democrat Party partners, Pelosi and Reid, barely make it above 20%.

At this rate, 2009 will go down in history as the year of the Great Disappointment. This Congress has spent over 10 months trying to write a Health Care Reform Bill and only by using last-minute wheeling and dealing and shameless vote-buying, they were finally able to garner the minimum number of votes to get it off the floor. Of course, it is still far from a final version and it is even farther from gaining popular support of the people. In fact, this legislation holds the peculiar place of being the most far-reaching, life-altering, tax-increasing, budget-busting bundle of bureaucratic regulations in our nation’s history – and it is being pushed forward despite the overwhelming public outcry against it.

Other domestic issues continued to plague us, even though Obama assured us his stimulus package – which he assumed the unprecedented act of signing while still wearing the title of President-elect – would staunch the bleeding of jobs and right the ship before she sank further. Well, the job losses continued and the ship still has not stopped taking on water. No matter how the media tries to sell us the idea that the recession has ended, each new indicator tells us another story.

The only bright spot economically is that the worldwide recession has contributed to a drop in oil prices, with the current price near $50 a barrel. However, this administration and Congress did not take the opportunity to exploit newly discovered reserves of domestic gas and oil, so if the global economy rebounds, we can expect to see $150 a barrel prices again and all the talk about solar and/or wind power will not move our cars or heat our homes.

2009 did not bring us any new sense of security or worldwide respect either. No matter how much charm Obama poured upon the leaders of Iran, North Korea, China, Venezuela, Russia or even the Olympic Committee, his words did not seem to move them. Iran still threatens the world with its nuclear ambitions, North Korea fired off missiles to mar our Independence Day celebrations, Russia has announced plans to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons and Putin has rejected Obama’s pleas to apply pressure on Iran; China is laughing at our suggestion that they limit their greenhouse emissions, while reminding us that we owe them over a $1 trillion.

Obama assured us that if we just apologized enough and bent over (bowed) far enough, the world would smile and we could all share a Coke and a song. But the fact is that the world is not a community and it can’t be organized. Obama finally seemed to be getting it by the time he accepted the aforementioned Peace Prize. He acknowledged then that evil does exist and war is sometimes necessary. He also finally re-introduced the Terrorism word back into the White House-approved vocabulary when he addressed the Christmas attack that was foiled at the last minute by heroic plane passengers.

So, it is with some hope that I look forward to 2009. I hope that the lessons learned by our president (and he is our president) will bear fruit in the next 12 months. I hope he sees that the people who go to tea parties and speak up at town hall meetings are his constituents also. I hope he sees that the people who plot to blow up planes are sworn enemies of our nation and not merely criminals.