My Take on the News

Award of disability pensions leap; is it that dangerous to work for the state?


STATE DISABILITY PENSIONS: A report released last week shows that Rhode Island has awarded disability pensions to state employees at the rate of about 50-75 per year during the past decade or so, an increase of close to 2,000 percent since the 1960s and 1970s when the disability retirement rate was only about three per year. Has it become so much more dangerous to work in public service jobs? The answer is an emphatic no! If anything, with increased technology and stronger occupational safety laws, the public workplace is now far safer than it used to be. Many disability pensions are awarded for legitimate reasons. However, the huge increase in disability awards is likely the result of employees having learned how to game the system and their unions exerting more and more pressure on the state retirement board.
And, who gets these disability pensions? Surprisingly, teachers and their assistants are awarded 34 percent of all disability retirements while police officers and firefighters account for only nine percent of such awards. It doesn't make sense! Surely, our schools have not returned to the "Blackboard Jungle" environment of yesteryear.

A CONFUSED CARUOLO: George Caruolo, Chairman of the soon-to-be-defunct Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education and the governor's nominee to head a new State Board of Education, seems quite confused about his position on charter schools. During the Regents' last meeting, he severely criticized the R.I. Department of Education's commitment to expanding the number of charter schools because he doesn't want to "create a parallel system of private schools paid for with public dollars." Strangely, during the same meeting, Caruolo praised Highlander Charter School and noted that his objection to charter schools is that only a few students can attend them, as evidenced by the very restrictive lottery system used to choose students. Mr. Caruolo, if your primary objection to charters is that not enough students can attend, then you should be pushing hard to expand them in R.I., not trying to hold them back. This kind of bi-polar thinking at the top level doesn't bode well for the future of education in Rhode Island.

WHITEHOUSE UNINFORMED ON SOCIAL SECURITY: Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a staunch opponent of any efforts to restructure the Social Security program in order to make it more sustainable, was recently quizzed by the Providence Journal about the program's current viability. When asked, "Is Social Security today spending more in benefits than it collects today in payroll tax?" Whitehouse stalled by providing a non-answer. Asked more pointedly, "Are this week's Social Security receipts from the program in excess of this week's benefits that are being paid out," he finally admitted, "I can't tell you that."
The Social Security Administration has frequently stated that it takes in less revenue in payroll taxes than it gives out in benefits. That’s why the program is going broke. This is pretty widespread public knowledge. It's hard to believe that a U.S. senator who is so adamant that the program should not be changed is so woefully uninformed about the program's current funding.

TIME TO PRIVATIZE POSTAL SERVICE? The U.S. Postal Service reported that it lost $15.9 billion during fiscal year 2012; this, after losing billions consistently every year for the past several years. Like almost every other federal agency that competes, or could compete, with privately-run companies, the behemoth postal service has shown year after year that it cannot successfully compete. If Congress isn't willing to streamline the postal service by eliminating Saturday mail delivery, reducing annual payments to its retirement fund for benefits foisted on the service by its powerful union, and increasing postage on the myriad of businesses who flood our mailboxes with worthless junk mail, then it's time to privatize mail delivery in our country. UPS, FedEx, or another private delivery service would implement better business practices and likely convert the service to a profitable enterprise that would still provide great service to America.

ITALY BACK AT IT AGAIN: An Italian court decided last month that scientists were responsible for the deaths of 300 Italians because the scientists had not warned residents of an earthquake they had failed to predict. The scientific data used by the scientists on the Major Risk Commission indicated the likelihood of a major quake was low after several small tremors had been detected. Scientific data is seldom conclusive; scientists cannot always predict the future based on such data. Scientists give advice based on their best estimate of what the data portends. Yet, the Italian court convicted the scientists of manslaughter and sentenced them to six years in prison.
It's reminiscent of the Italian mindset that prevailed during the days of Galileo in the seventeenth century. Galileo used telescopes to prove his heliocentric model of the solar system - that the earth revolves around the sun. His evidence greatly upset the Vatican-run Roman Inquisition who believed in the biblical version of the solar system - Ptolemy's geocentric model that had the sun revolving around the Earth. The inquisition convicted Galileo of heresy and sentenced him to indefinite imprisonment, later commuted to lifelong house arrest.
It's a very scary thing when people are imprisoned for what they believe and for giving their best advice based on the best scientific information available. Italy has progressed in many areas since the days of Galileo. But, in its religious battle against scientific "heresy," it has progressed little.

THE TROUBLE WITH TWINKIES: The demise of Hostess Brands, Inc., the maker of Twinkies and other snack cakes provides a lesson for U.S. leaders in Washington. For years the company lavished unaffordable salaries, wages and benefits on its executives and its unions. In short, the company spent far more money than it had. Well, the chickens have come home to roost; and they've found no Twinkies, Ding Dongs or Ho Hos left in the company's treasury. The object lesson for our president and congressional leaders is that, just like Hostess, our country cannot continue to spend money we don't have. If we continue on our current path, we will suffer the same fate as Hostess but the results will be far worse; our country will be bankrupt and our children and grandchildren will have nothing.


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