A Teachable Moment

Former local teacher union pesident Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

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Misunderstanding Pensions

There is much I could say about the firing of Andrew McCabe, but I’ll confine myself to an issue his firing raises of import far beyond his individual case. The issue is the almost complete misunderstanding of what a pension is that permeates our media if not our society. As fewer and fewer people have defined benefit pensions, the very meaning of the terms seems to be evaporating.

One would think from the way pensions, particularly public employee pensions, are talked about that they are a reward for meritorious service upon retirement. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. Pensions are deferred wages. A sum of money is paid by an employer periodically into a fund on behalf of an employee to provide income to that employee upon his retirement. The employee foregoes that money now to ensure a continuing income when he stops working.

When correctly understood, the taking of the pension of someone like McCabe who worked for over twenty years for an alleged contemporaneous infraction of FBI rules is particularly outrageous. He worked for the dollars that were put in the pension fund for him. We don’t ask him to return all of his pay checks for the twenty years of his employment. Why do we think his pension should be treated differently?

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The Young Awaken

As I write this morning, students across the country are leaving their classes to participate in seventeen minutes of silence in remembrance of the seventeen students killed in Parkland, Florida. In Washington, DC, students from the metro area converged on the Whitehouse, turning their backs to it in protest of the federal government’s failure to enact reasonable gun safety measures.

For a man who was their age in the 60’s, the awakening of student activism on a national scale is beyond heartening. I’ve watched far too many classes of students subordinate their feelings and concerns for matters beyond themselves to the race to get into the best college, to get the best job, to earn the most money. While it is indeed sad that it may have taken a massacre of their peers to wake them from their careerist torpor, the fact is they are awake. They’re marching, registering to vote and, even more importantly, experiencing the exhilaration that come with commitment to something bigger than one’s self. The adrenaline that comes with the experience of working with others for social change is a wonderful addiction that leads to a lifetime of good citizenship.

Bravo, young people! You put your parents who have been sitting on the sidelines to shame. March on!

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Now It’s Oklahoma

Recent militancy by the school employees of West Virginia is inspiring public workers in other non-collective bargaining states to take concerted action. The next likely state-wide strike is in Oklahoma, where the Oklahoma Education Association has carefully developed a campaign entitled Together We’re Stronger. There are four central planks to their campaign – a $10,000 raise over three years to all teachers with a $5,000 increase to support personnel, the restoration of education funding cut in recent years, a five percent increase in the pensions of retirees and a $7500 increase for all other state workers. Clear, concise and anchored in economic terms all state works with frozen wages can understand. Coupled with the threat of a statewide walkout, the Oklahoma Education Association has positioned themselves to be taken seriously by the governor and legislature.

In West Virginia and Oklahoma, public sector works are rediscovering an old truth. They are learning that worker solidarity around carefully crafted demands can force reluctant governments to bargaining even where there are no collective bargaining laws. Who would have ever expected West Virginia and Oklahoma to lead this rediscovery?

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West Virginia Settlement

The West Virginia strike by education workers is over. It appears that labor has won a clear victory, a victory that is causing other non-collective bargaining states to consider strike action. At a time when public sector unions are nervously and desperately attempting to shore-up their solidarity to withstand the almost certain defeat in the impending Janus Case decision, the resolve of the West Virginia NEA and AFT members to put away their ancient grudges and take on the state controlled completely by conservative Republicans offers hope and inspiration to a movement that has been languishing for too long. Undoubtedly spurred on by their example, the Oklahoma Education Association, An NEA affiliate whose teachers are the lowest paid in the nation, is talking about a strike at the end of the month if their economic demands are not met.

One would expect the leadership of both the NEA and AFT to be wildly celebrating the almost inconceivable West Virginia victory. Yet, a look at the web pages of both organizations reveals a stunning silence on the subject. Ironically, both have featured pieces on the Janus Case as they both fail miserably to see in the solidarity of the West Virginia teachers, aides, cafeteria works and bus drivers the real solution to the right’s attack on our unions – vibrant unions that fight like hell for the economic welfare of their members.

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The Unsafe School Myth

Readers will have notices how the discussion of a response to the school shooting in Florida has gradually changed from a focus on guns to hardening schools and providing gun power in some form to school buildings. Students, teachers and parents are being encouraged to believe that going into a school building poses a significant risk, one that demands quasi-military defenses that will have long range implications for school environment and culture. I have argued that school remains the safest place for children to be, the risk of serious injury at home still being far greater than falling victim to a crazed individual with an assault rifle. While I know it’s risky to challenge thoughtlessness with facts, certainly educators have an obligation to try to do so.

Eric Levits, writing in New York Magazine, offers what to me is the best writing on the subject of school safety that I have read. His work should receive the broadest possible circulation, as he offers chapter and verse in support of the fact that contrary the avalanche of stupid talk generated by the Florida tragedy, school remains a very safe place to be. The act of traveling to school puts one at far greater risk of injury and death than succumbing to mass murder. Unless reason can prevail, we appear to be on the verge of vast, unnecessary expenditures, expenditures that will certainly displace badly needed educational resources.

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Our Strike Averse Unions

Teachers and other school personnel remain on strike in West Virginia. A deal negotiated with the governor but dependent on action by the legislature was rejected by the rank and file. Every school district in the state is closed. The editorial page of the New York Times this morning looks at this stunning example of union militancy and says, “…we can hope, these teachers can provide workers throughout the country with a powerful lesson.”

Yet, do we see any of our unions trying to teach this vital lesson? Do we see our national teacher unions trying to inspire their affiliates to see in the militant struggle of the West Virginia school workers the untapped power to demand and achieve reasonable salaries sand working conditions? No we don’t! The New York Times is more militant than our unions!

While the AFT’s Randi Weingarten put out an email Sunday night soliciting donations to a solidarity fund created for AFT-West Virginia, both the NEA and The AFT appear desperate to keep the strike localized, afraid that the militancy it represents will spread to other states where to work in the public schools is to essentially take a vow of poverty.

At a time when the two national teacher unions and their state affiliates are expecting huge membership losses from a ruling in the Janus Case that will outlaw agency fees, when both organizations have been straining to show members the value of union membership, it defies the very concept of a union to essentially ignore an example of the power that can flow from the ranks of union solidarity.

If we get the lesson to be learned from the West Virginia strike, it is essential that we support it. I’ll be contributing today to the AFT solidarity fund. I hope my readers will too. Here are the particulars. Please make checks out to: AFT-WV Solidarity Fund. Mail to: AFTWV, 1615 Washington Street E . Suite 300, Charleston WV 25311

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The Little Noticed Strike

At a time when collective bargaining is under attack by powerful corporate interests, when those interests have brought a case to the United States Supreme Court that will probably end agency fee for public sector unions, wouldn’t one expect our national teacher unions to be making a big deal out of the statewide teacher strike in West Virginia? Yet, looking at the AFT website just minutes ago I was shocked to find nothing about it at all. NEA was better, with one dated article with appropriate quotations from NEA officers.

The efforts of the West Virginia teachers are a powerful example to public employees in non-collective bargaining states of the power they have when they stand in solidarity and demand to be treated fairly. They also remind collective bargaining unions of the strike weapon that has largely been surrendered in recent times. If national unions are not to publicize such efforts, if they make no effort to hold them up as examples of unions at their best, if they make no visible move to organize their memberships to come to the aide of the West Virginia teachers, what conclusion are we to draw as to the reasons for their continued existence? Both the NEA and AFT talk about organizing. Yet, here is an opportunity to organize that goes almost unnoticed.

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Getting Serious About Depression

I’ve written before about how I came to the understanding that clinical depression is a significant, under-diagnosed factor in the lives of many adolescents. It’s a factor in at least some of the gun violence that has plagued our public schools. I was heartened to hear on an NPR broadcast this morning that the American College of Pediatrics has published practice guidelines that that call for the yearly screening of adolescents from age twelve on for clinical depression.

Beyond question, pediatricians ought to be on guard for the signs of depression in their patients. But, if we are serious about screening the nation’s adolescents, school is the place to do so if we are to capture the broadest possible population. Such screenings could easily become part of a child’s periodic visit with her guidance counselor. The screening consists of a written questionnaire that is completed quickly and easily compiled. Where the screening instrument indicates clinical depression, most public schools have psychologists on staff that can make contact with the child and her parents to arrange for outside treatment.

Hopefully this call for universal screening of adolescents for depression by the pediatricians will have another effect. Perhaps it will call into more careful questioning the inappropriate pressures we are putting on young people in the name of school reform and raising academic standards. With a lot of leadership and a bit of luck, we may be able to rediscover what we once knew about child development and refashion our school programs for kids as they are rather than what we wish them to be.

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Arm Who?

When I wrote yesterday, “Let’s try to keep our wits about us and resist loony proposals to arm our teachers and other similar ideas, ideas growing out of the stupidity that the solution to gun violence is more guns,” I didn’t realize that the President was about to have a listening session on gun violence in our schools at which he would propose the arming 20% of the teaching staff. 20% to carry concealed weapons. While I labeled the idea loony, it seems some 40% of Americans think the President’s idea a good one. I woke up this morning thinking about who the 20% in my district might be.

To begin, the overwhelming majority of the teachers I know would not only not volunteer to be a part of some clandestine paramilitary force within their schools, they would demand that their union seek contractual language making it explicitly clear that teachers cannot be assigned such duties, even if they volunteer. They didn’t become teachers to tote a gun in class.

There would be some volunteers. Experience tells me, they would come from those who despite the fact that crime in the United States is at an all-time low, do not believe the statistics, seeing instead a society in which we are always exposed to incipient attack. They are the ones for whom student discipline can never be tight enough. They are the teachers who are driven by the fear that their classes are always on the verge of rebellion should they relax their guard for a second. Should some misbehavior occur in their class, their insecurity causes them to escalate the situation rather than deal
with it more unobtrusively. They are the gun owners among us, owners who are not hunters or target shooters but people who fear strangers, suspecting them of wanting to do them harm. Short-fused, up-tight, they are precisely the sort of people you wouldn’t want to count on in a tense situation, especially with guns in their hands. The risk to the school population posed by arming them is far greater than the still statistically rare event of mass murder.

Arming teachers will always be a loony idea. That the latest loon to propose it is the President of the United States is cause for the deepest concern.

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School is a Safe Place

I suppose it’s to be expected that in the well-intentioned anti-gun rhetoric growing out of the recent school gun violence in Florida there will be some serious exaggeration. Just last evening, Lawrence O’Donnell found himself talking about gun violence having become a working condition of today’s teachers. Now really! Checking my Twitter account after that broadcast, I found AFT President Randi Weingarten thanking O’Donnell for his remarks and referring to our nation’s schools as killing fields. I don’t mean to minimize the Parkland tragedy in the slightest. I do think, however, that serious adults have a responsibility to be more careful with their rhetoric than the traumatized children in that attacked Florida high school. We need to remind parents and students alike that despite the incidence of gun violence in our schools, a child is probably safer in a public school than in any other place, including his home.

By all means, let’s seize the moment to demand action against the scourge of gun violence in our country. In doing so, we need to be careful not to leave our nation’s students with the impression that they are likely to experience an armed attack in their public school. Let’s try to remember that the overwhelming number of kids in our schools do not. Let’s try to keep our wits about us and resist loony proposals to arm our teachers and other similar ideas, ideas growing out of the stupidity that the solution to gun violence is more guns.

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The student voices demanding action be taken to thwart the epidemic of gun violence in our nation’s schools is heartening. Their demands, grown out of the trauma of surviving an attack that killed seventeen of their own, give us a glimmer of hope that our political leaders may finally embrace their allegiance to the United States rather than the National Rifle Association. Perhaps more importantly and long-lasting, they may be the generation of Americans to come to terms with our societal fascination with guns.

I hope teachers throughout the nation are taking time to talk to students about this youth movement, offering words of encouragement and maybe a little know-how. I hope too that local teacher unions understand their self-interest in aligning themselves with students to mount the political pressure that will bring about sensible firearms policy. In my youth, the work of students and faculty contributed powerfully to the end of the senseless Viet Nam War.

We need to understand, however, that the change we seek will not happen in the short run. We can expect at most some cosmetic changes to the existing background law from the current congress and administration. But, if we are prepared to work over the long term to defeat the gun lobby, the outpouring of horror at events in Florida and the lack of an appropriate response from our President and the NRA puppets in the Congress may enable us to make some serious change in the fall. Conditions may just be right for a national movement to punish all our leaders who toe the NRA line in exchange for their money. Given our history, it’s hard to be hopeful, but I am for the first time in awhile.

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Guilt Tripping Gun Owners

We have an advertising industry capable of selling Americans almost anything. If that industry is capable of selling bottled water from Fiji, why can’t they develop a series of public service videos on the dangers to all of us from a society awash in guns? Where once smoking was fashionable, a public campaign on the dangers of smoking has made smokers feel almost like criminals when lighting up. Can we not make a vast majority of Americans feel similarly guilty and foolish for exposing their families and the rest of us to the dangers of gun ownership? Can we not force them between innings of baseball games to be reminded of the American children lost to senseless gun violence?

Here is an ad I would love to see bombarding the airways. Little Johnny is at his friend’s house where he asks his friend’s parents, “Do you have guns in this house?’ His friend’s father responds, “Yes, we do.” Johnny, obviously saddened to the point of holding back tears says, “Then I can’t come here anymore. My parents won’t let me go to houses where there are guns. They say it’s not safe.”

Of course I know that such ads would drive the NRA crazy. That may not be such a bad thing. To the extent that we can force them into increasingly extreme positions, owning guns should become increasingly uncomfortable.

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Yet More Gun Violence

Eighteen incidents of gun violence in our nation’s schools in less than two months of this year. EIGHTEEN! The President and Republicans in Congress tell us that this is not the time to talk about the epidemic of child slaughter. Our seeming indifference to this lunacy prompted a black humor artist on Twitter to suggest that we start calling school “uterus” so that Republicans will be concerned with the carnage going on inside them.

In the latest incident, a young man recognized by his peers as likely to shoot the school up, found himself in a society that rather than provide him with the psychiatric care he so obviously needed instead facilitated the actualization of his homicidal fantasies by making weapons of mass destruction easily accessible to him . Millions of dollars have been spent hardening entrances to our schools, when the real danger almost always is within. We have metal detectors in many schools to screen students for weapons but provide few professionals to screen for serious mental disturbance. A screening of any American high school for clinical depression alone would wake the country up to the mental health needs of many of our students.

Our political leaders offer prayers and condolences to what are becoming routine events. It should be obvious to all that God is not answering these prayers. If we are to get control of this epidemic, it is we who will have to find the courage to stand up to the lunatic fringe of gun worshippers and the NRA. Perhaps it’s time to send a message to our elected leaders that we will not vote for anyone who takes NRA blood money. Is it not finally the time to take common sense steps to keep firearms out of the hands of people who can predictably be expected to abuse their constitutional right?

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A Pissing Contest Over Teacher Evaluation?

My readers are more than familiar with my opposition to high stakes testing in the evaluation of students and teachers. I believe it fair to say that my voice in New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) was an early influence in moving our union’s position from support for test based teacher accountability all the way to support for the opt-out movement which seeks to encourage parents to withhold their children from these tests. I feel obliged to state my bona fides as a preface to questioning the current approach of our state union to dealing with this issue.

Currently, largely through the work of the NYSUT and the heroic work of the Opt-Out Movement, we have a moratorium on the use of high stakes tests to evaluate teachers. While a majority of students still take the tests with the student growth scores still reported to the district by teacher, scores are advisory. The commissioner of education appears to be proposing that the moratorium be extended, to which NYSUT has responded with a demand that teacher evaluation be returned solely to local school districts. I completely agree that the state has mucked up the teacher evaluation process and that a return to local control of the process is desirable. I’m not sure, however, that now is the time to get into a pissing contest with the state, a state that is apparently willing to extend the moratorium protecting our members.

At a time when most of our political energies should be focused on the mid-term congressional elections in the fall, at a time when we should be focusing our members attention on the importance to our welfare of returning control of the congress to Democrats, failure to win the battle over evaluations will make our job of turning our members out in November all the more difficult. How much easier and safer it would be to take credit for the extension of the moratorium with a reminder to our membership that we continue the battle for a return to locally bargained teacher evaluation systems.

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Humans have always dreamed of being free of labor. Yet, now that that day is foreseeable, now that technological advances idle both blue and white-collar workers at an astonishing pace, our society does not seem the have the wherewithal to grapple with the implications of a future in which more an more goods and services will be created labor-free. We intuitively know that the answer to the dilemma involves education, but we continue to think that if we can just train people in science and technology, they will be equipped for the emerging economy. It is in this frame of mind that we are teaching little kids to write computer code, to do mathematics that people my age didn’t do until college and cram their school days with activities inappropriate to their stage of development. We feel obliged to destroy their childhood in order to ensure a good place for them in the economy of the future. The name of the game in k-12 education today is STEM, science, technology, engineering and math.

Putting aside the absurdity of everyone learning to code and the other nonsense we inflict on children, less and less of a young person’s education today is spent on what we used to call a liberal education, literature, history, art, civics, comparative religions, languages. Fewer and fewer teachers dare to take time from preparing students for the high stakes tests they must pass to have any hope of a place in the economy of the future to talk about things like the degradation of our democracy, media literacy, the implications of the decline of the middle class, unending wars and, above all else, what it means to live the good life.

Several years ago I suggested that we needed to have a sexy acronym for liberal arts education. I suggested HEART for humanities education advances reading and thinking. I went on to say, “HEART is not about training, but rather about making sense of the world and the people in it. HEART is about envisioning a better world and having the knowhow to organize people to call it into being. HEART is the antithesis of training. It’s not about making a living but learning to live. It’s about having HEART.

One look at the HEARTless baboons who have taken over our country, these people for whom knowledge is a handicap and gut instinct a many art, one look at them gives us a glimpse of what a society devoid of broadly educated citizens looks like. We need to look closely and take HEART.

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A Day of Action

I’ve been in California for a week or so, but have tried to stay in touch with happenings in the education and union worlds. I get an email from my state organization announcing a union day of action on February 24th. I follow up on the web and find that a coalition of public sector unions is sponsoring a national day of protest as a unified statement just prior to the United States Supreme Court taking up the Janus Case, a law suit challenging unions’ right to collect agency fees from non-members.

I immediately look to see about demonstrations in the Palm Springs area. Although there is a 12,000 student school district here and a union with collective bargaining rights, there is nothing on their website or any other union’s website. Frustrated, I figure the California Teachers Association, a huge statewide union, will surely have an announcement of the plans for the day of action. Nothing!

Wouldn’t one think that before a national announcement about a day of action, arrangements with the state and local affiliates and of the national unions would have been made? After all, unions are supposed to be about organizing. With the event just a couple of weeks away, wouldn’t it have been wise to have a publicity campaign that immediately made it clear where demonstrations are going to take place?

A labor day of action is a great idea, but this one doesn’t seem to have been effectively planned and organized. I sure hope we don’t wind up demonstrating our weakness.

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West Virginia Militancy

I’ve had a few arguments with the leaders of both the NEA and AFT over my years as a union officer. In general I have criticized both for a general lack of militancy and an idealized, distorted view of the conditions under which our members work. Both organizations have been slow to realize that k-12 teaching has become an increasingly difficult, less rewarding job, a job that with each passing year has less and less to do with serious education, a job that forces thousands upon thousands of teacher across the country to work one or more extra jobs to keep their families going. Where we should be organizing them to demand better pay and benefits, we offer them professional development, often how to courses that teach them how to cope
with conditions that they shouldn’t have to contend with in the first place. Where militancy is sparked by these dreadful conditions, we often find our national organizations hosing down the fires rather than stoking them.

A case in point is the recent teacher strikes in West Virginia. If you expected to read about how teachers in three West Virginia counties closed down their school districts last Friday and went to the state capitol to demand better pay and an end to attempts to do away with seniority regulations, you would have been completely disappointed. I came upon it in Newsweek, not exactly a journal of radical labor opinion. Wouldn’t one think that NEA and AFT would be in the vanguard of these brave teachers? Shouldn’t we expect our national leaders to shine the spotlight on West Virginia as an example of teachers taking their destiny into their own hands and demanding the respect they so completely deserve? Shouldn’t we wonder why two potentially powerful national organizations appear to be missing this opportunity to use the example of West Virginia to demonstrate to their memberships the importance of maintaining membership in these unions?

The two state organizations in West Virginia have been feuding for years, raids and counter raids preventing them from doing the sensible thing and developing a common agenda to improve the conditions of their members. If there ever was a time to put the past behind them, it would certainly seem to be now.

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Preparing Teachers to Be Union

Why isn’t a course in working in a union environment a part of every college teacher preparatory program in the United States? If our colleges and universities are bastions of ultra-left politics, how can it be that by and large new entrants to the teaching profession come with little or no knowledge of either the contributions of the union movement to the teaching profession or the rights and responsibilities of being a union member?

A million years ago, I had some business with the dean of one of the schools of education of one of our local Long Island universities. After finishing my business, I asked her these same questions, hoping to stimulate her interest in starting such a course. Most of her school’s graduates would get jobs in union districts in the area, many in places that pioneered teacher collective bargaining. Wasn’t it the responsibility of the university to prepare students for the conditions under which they were going to work? At the time, my own district was in a bargaining crisis with a “no contract, no work” vote of the membership scheduled for implementation in September.

The dean responded to my questions with exactly what I expected. It was not the responsibility of the university to advance the cause of unionism. Students were free to make up their own minds about union membership. No matter what I said, even offering to teach the course as a demonstration for free, she obdurately maintained that such a course had no place in a teacher preparation program. When one thinks of the meaningless drivel that makes up most ed courses, the dean’s response to my questions is astounding. Yet, her ideas continue to be mainstream. Why?

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A Dubious Distinction

The high school at which I worked for over thirty years has been named by the state as a Reward School. This perceived distinction is granted to schools scoring in the top 20 percent on the state’s English and math exams, having made score gains in the previous year and not having significant achievement gaps among segments of the school population. Board of education members have been publically praising the superintendent for this achievement. While I have always believed the school to be one of the best in our area, being a Reward School is a distinction based on a metrics that have very little to do with its quality education. To me, our high school is a superior place of learning despite the attempts of a board and administration who have very consciously tried to boost high stakes test scores to the exclusion of more purposeful instruction.

Rating a school on the scores on one English exam and several math tests, exams of highly questionable validity, is absurd. Awards like this are the end product of a high stakes testing regimes that delude the public into believing that serious work is being done to raise the academic bar. It is also a foolhardy way to evaluate the effectiveness of a superintendent, the school administrators and the teaching staff. There are numbers of schools in our area that achieve very respectable test scores but which fail to prepare students for serious college academic work.

Some years ago, we had a superintendent whose mantra was, “We’re number one.” At every public meeting, he would find some way to reinforce the notion that somehow we were in a competition and we were going to come out on top. When I asked him once how we would know we were the best, he looked at me with a broad smile. His gambit was all about boosting his salary. Reward School is a very similar concept.

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Could the Wave Be Flattening?

Those of us who have had more than enough of Donald trump and the complete control of our government by a Republican Party that no longer believes in the efficacy of government are anxiously awaiting the Democratic wave predicted for the congressional elections in November. Conventional wisdom appears to be that the Dems easily take the House, with the Senate likely to remain in Republican control.

A recent poll published in The Hill on the popularity of the recently enacted tax reduction legislation has me wondering. Up 9 percent since December and now at 46 percent, support for the tax law is growing and will probably continue to as more and more paychecks are calculated off the recently published IRS withholding tables. I fear the average American sees the decrease in withholding from his paycheck, pension or Social security as a raise, a raise delivered to him by the Republican controlled Congress and President Trump. Add to this “American pay increase” the wild growth in the stock market, a market in which about a third of Americans have tax sheltered retirement accounts of one kind or another, and the plight of the Republicans running for re-election may not be as dismal as conventional wisdom has it.

While I hope I’m wrong about this, I fear too many American will look to their pockets rather than their consciences and conclude that maybe Trump isn’t as bad as they had thought.

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