Consumer Confidence

Reasons to shoo away the humbuggers

This essay was first published in Newsday.

It's been a Scrooge of a year, wouldn't you say? Ebenezer Scrooge - whom I caught on television the other night looking a lot like the actor George C. Scott - was a man who refused to share any of his wealth with the world around him. The year 2012 bears a resemblance.

This year, we endured a divisive battle for the presidency, which was fought at times as though the only thing that mattered was how much money either side could raise. That's a sad statement for a country that stands for democracy.

Thousands were wiped out financially and emotionally by superstorm Sandy. Many innocents were lost to deranged gunmen in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn.

The economy refused to rebound, and Washington wouldn't come to agreement over anything.

And so the year 2012 was stingy like Scrooge. But in "A Christmas Carol," Charles Dickens thankfully gives us examples of two people who don't lose faith in the old miser: his long-suffering clerk Bob Cratchit and his nephew, Fred.

Cratchit raises a glass to Scrooge over the family's meager Christmas dinner - and over Mrs. Cratchit's objections. And Fred continues to invite his uncle to dine, year after year, even though the old man riddles him with insults.

We all know the end of the story. After his ghostly visitations, Scrooge accepts dinner with Fred and becomes a generous benefactor to the Cratchits. And so, neither should we close our hearts to hope for the 21st century.

Taking a wide look around, here are a few silver linings that emerged in 2012.

*Apple announced that it is bringing back some of its manufacturing to the United States. In interviews, Apple's chief executive, Tim Cook, said the company would spend about $100 million on U.S. manufacturing operations in 2013.

*Several cities, including New York, are reporting declines in childhood obesity - perhaps showing that public health campaigns can be effective. Obesity is a significant factor in health care costs.

*The years-long deployment of soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in an unexpected gain for quality child care in this country. When parents began shipping out, the Department of Defense realized that there weren't enough approved, private child care slots. So the military worked with a national organization, Child Care Aware, to train and certify child care providers, greatly expanding the supply of quality programs.

*Here's another unexpected gain. During the economic downturn that began in 2008, even as people are hurting financially, they are demonstrating more compassion. The Corporation for National and Community Service reports a rise in volunteerism - exactly the opposite of what happened during hard economic times in the past.

There are many more bright spots; we see them in our personal lives every day. Let's hold a hope in our hearts for rebirth in our public life as well.

Democrats should make good on campaign hints to upper-middle class

This essay was first published in Newsday. It seems likely that we will be hearing about the tortuous dramas of the "fiscal cliff" until the calendar closes on 2012. The president took his case to business leaders this week and will speak tomorrow to workers at a Pennsylvania toy factory, in an effort to ratchet up pressure on Republicans in Congress.

Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), is threatening to push the country into default unless there are drastic spending cuts. And so the wrestling match continues, teetering as close to the Jan. 1 "cliff" edge as possible.

Many Long Islanders, I suspect, will be watching how the debate settles over who is wealthy and who is middle class. President Barack Obama has drawn the line at earnings of $200,000 for an individual, and $250,000 for a household. He wants to extend tax cuts for everyone below those annual incomes.

However, this income cutoff is unfair to high-cost areas like Long Island, as some Democrats have acknowledged. In 2010, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) floated the idea of raising taxes only on $1-million-plus incomes. A year earlier, Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) was one of eight co-sponsors of a bill, the Tax Equity Act, that would have adjusted federal income tax brackets to account for regional differences in the cost of living.

The bill was popular in the Northeast: Seven co-sponsors were from New York, and the eighth, Rep. Jim Himes, represents Fairfield County, Conn. But the bill went nowhere.

This year during election season, many more Democrats saw the light and began publicly questioning whether $250,000 was the right cutoff. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who represents pricey San Francisco, in May called for a vote to make the tax cuts permanent for anyone making less than $1 million a year. Florida Sen. Bill Nelson and North Dakota Sen.-elect Heidi Heitkamp also supported extending tax cuts for those making less than $1 million. Candidates from Missouri to Nevada to Virginia said $250,000 was perhaps too low. Some floated figures of $400,000 or $500,000 instead.

This campaign-trail flirtation with a compromise obligates Democrats to at least consider a higher-income cutoff.

There are two reasons this is important to Long Island - and, indeed, to high-cost regions around the country. First, many Long Islanders would be affected by the higher tax rate. The IRS doesn't publish data for the $250,000 income level, but about 100,000 Long Island households made more than $200,000 in 2009, according to census figures.

People making $250,000 a year don't necessarily feel wealthy. Their household could consist of a teacher and a police officer - in other words, middle class occupations. At that income, it's not always possible to fund what most Americans would agree is a middle-class life: the ability to save for retirement, afford a home and educate one's children.

More income taxes - on top of high-priced homes, local taxes, transportation, recreation and education - would make this area even less affordable. We are already bleeding retirees to North Carolina, and graduates to everywhere else.

To be sure, it may be hard to muster sympathy for a $250,000-earner when the median family income nationwide is $62,300. And bumping the cutoff from $250,000 to $1 million would lose the government $366 billion in revenue over 10 years, according to the nonpartisan Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

But fairness dictates a second look for high-cost regions. For many people, another few thousand dollars in taxes just isn't affordable.

Embracing the new normal

This essay was first published in Newsday. There's nothing like a life-shaking storm to make people appreciate normal. Usually, normal is ho-hum. But when life is turned upside down, normal is the most welcome feeling.

Normal didn't return for me, after superstorm Sandy, when we got our power back or refilled the refrigerator. It was when I saw faces I hadn't seen since before the storm - about two weeks after it knocked our Island around. There we were, smiling, most of us showered, and whole. Normal returned when I realized that people in my community were, for the most part, going to be OK.

That's not the same as saying life will be the same as it was before the storm, or before this long recession. Instead, we're living with a "new normal" - a sense that we must permanently lower our material expectations. Maybe the new normal will define our moment in history.

Some day, years from now, we may think of these times the way people recall the Great Depression. People who lived through it went on to stash away money - sometimes in places far away from banks they no longer trusted. They hoarded food; waste became a sin. Our recollections of 2012 may be that this was the year we acknowledged how much we depend on each other.

Our country has weathered a long series of blows. The banking crisis of 2008 diminished or zeroed out our home equity. High school graduates applied to cheaper colleges, and college graduates couldn't find jobs. Stretches of unemployment lengthened, people couldn't pay their mortgages, and then ... Sandy.

It's fair to say that many of us are feeling wiped out. Thousands of homes and more than a dozen people on Long Island were lost in the storm. It's the sort of thing that makes normal seem miraculous.

You probably think I'm going to say that we should be grateful for normal. It is Thanksgiving Day, after all. Children's smiles, purring kittens, dry basements and the smell of coffee. Yes, all of that.

But there is another point worth remembering, and that is that as the winds have receded, it's impossible to miss the compassion going around. We heard about the occasional tempers flaring as people waited in hours-long gasoline lines. But for the most part, we were patient with one another. Those with generators opened their homes. A friend cooked all the chicken from her neighbor's powerless freezer and fed the neighborhood. An out-of-state tree cutter returned to one woman's home, after his shift was over, to make sure she had lights and heat. Fire departments set up cots for utility workers who were far from home.

Everyone has storm stories like this.

During this recession, unlike those of the past, volunteerism has been on the rise, according to Wendy Spencer, chief executive of the federal Corporation for National and Community Service. What motivates volunteers, he says, is connection to community, and a sense that we are all going to have to contribute if we are going to achieve community and national goals.

This year's re-election of President Barack Obama seemed to me to be an affirmation of depending on each other, with a vision of prosperity for the broadest number.

I don't hear people talking now about what they can get out of the government. They are discussing buying generators when the price goes down and how long food will keep in a freezer if you leave it sealed. They're vowing to fill the gas tank at the next storm warning.

People aren't acting like victims. They're adjusting. They're finding a new normal. It's one of the things we as a people do best.

Focus on pay equity for women misses a host of other important family issues

This essay was first published in Newsday. It's dismaying that pay equity for women is the family issue that emerged most loudly from the recent round of presidential debates. Pay equity by itself is a simplistic measure that obscures more complex and urgent public policy reforms.

Judging how fair our workplaces are by whether men and women are paid equally is like judging a teenager based on an SAT score. That single number doesn't tell you anything about the kid's study habits -- not to mention character or passions.

Similarly, the oft-repeated assertion that women earn 77 cents to a man's dollar says very little. The number is an average of full-time workers, rather than a comparison of men and women in the same jobs with the same experience. A 2009 study by the economics consulting firm CONSAD Research Corporation showed that when the wage gap is analyzed by occupations, regional markets, job titles and more, women make about 94 percent of what men make.

Gender discrimination may exist in that last 6 cents -- and it's important to address that. The Paycheck Fairness Act, which fell two votes short of the filibuster-proof 60 in the U.S. Senate in June, would have required fuller disclosure of salaries. The bill had its flaws, but this disclosure would clear up inequity fast.

However, it's the bigger gap that concerns me -- the difference between women's 77 cents-to-a-dollar and the 94 cents. These numbers show that women are often making choices based on shouldering a greater caregiver burden, either for children or other family. They're choosing part-time jobs, predictable hours and less responsibility. They're staying home with babies -- which significantly discounts lifetime earnings -- or quitting when the work-family tightrope snaps.

Yes, it's true that American men are taking on caregiver roles -- and thank goodness. Having walked in each other's shoes, maybe men and women can fashion a broader agenda for needed public policy changes.

One need is for paid parental leave. Economist Christopher Ruhm examined 16 European countries and found that paid parental leave policies were associated with lower infant and child mortality. California funds parental leave through a payroll deduction -- everyone contributes. Spreading out this cost could pay California back in kids with fewer health problems and lower lifetime health care costs. Mothers could benefit from career continuity -- and steadier paychecks.

Leave for children's health problems or for parents to participate in schooling is another needed buttress. The Healthy Families Act, which has at times been championed by House Democrats, would guarantee seven paid sick days a year to care for ill family members.

Some say such policies would harm the United States' ability to compete economically. But the data tell a different story. Researchers from Princeton University and the Brookings Institution recently compiled a global database of national labor policies and economic data for all United Nations members. The collaboration, called The Future of Children, found that family support policies and a highly competitive economy are often compatible -- in Germany, Singapore, Sweden, Canada and 10 more.

What's more, employers who have adopted these kinds of family-friendly policies often have higher market value, lower turnover among employees, improved customer satisfaction, decreased health care costs, reduced absenteeism and a better esprit de corps.

Why aren't U.S. presidential candidates talking about policy supports for middle-class families? Certainly, they're a factor in pay equity for women. But they're harder to fit on a bumper sticker than "77 cents to a man's dollar."

What's up with the U.S.'s declining birth rate?

This essay was first published in Newsday. End-of-the-world scenarios have been circulating forever. Some think the world will end with the Mayan calendar later this year. But I believe I've seen the real doomsday. Our species will simply fail to reproduce.

That's my conclusion from two news items. The first is from the U.S. Census Bureau, which announced a baby "bust" last fall. The census shows that, in 95 percent of counties across the United States, the share of the population younger than 18 was smaller than in 2000.

There are now more households with dogs than children.

The other piece of evidence is a book published this month from feminist author and blogger Jessica Valenti: "Why Have Kids?" A new mother herself at 33, she looks at the unhappiness among parents with young children and asks this very relevant question: Why do it?

According to interviews, Valenti concludes that it's the chasm between the idealized parental life and reality that causes so much woe. Americans glorify the mother alone at home raising kids.

It may be tempting to tut-tut Valenti and tell her that she'll get used to the lack of adult conversation and the jobs that require either 24/7 commitment or unemployment, with nothing in between. But her perspective may well spring not so much from her phase of life as from our time in history. Or, as we've begun to say about this economy that refuses to improve, her complaint is the new normal.

Raising children well has become increasingly difficult. I blame it on my generation - those of us who have teenagers, as I do, and older kids. Instead of banding together to wrest better policies from government and employers - or to create strong communities to assist one another - we've indulged ourselves in divisive "mommy wars." We have bickered about which is better, attachment parenting or free-range? Stay-at-home mothers or moms with paychecks? Opting out or having it all?

In 1996, we heard that it takes a village to raise a child, and we looked the other way.

Now, Americans are having fewer children. In 2007, according to the census, the average number of births per American woman was 2.1. That's just enough to hold the population steady. Last year, however, the birthrate fell to 1.9, the lowest in decades.

Have we decided that it's too difficult to go on - at least in the United States? France is still reporting somewhat higher birthrates. Perhaps the French crèche system of universal day care - which, by the way, supports an employment rate of 80 percent among French mothers - has a lot to do with providing young families with the resources they need to feel happy and hopeful enough to keep having children.

The reasons for the decreasing U.S. birthrate are many. The financial crisis of 2008 made parents fearful of another bill. The annual cost of center-based day care for an infant in 35 states - New York among them - is higher than a year's in-state tuition and fees at a four-year public college.

Wages have been falling for 40 years, which means that many household budgets require two, three or more jobs. Forget about quality family time with that schedule. One New Jersey town recently hired soccer coaches because it could no longer count on parents having the leisure to volunteer. Not only will we have fewer kids in the future, it looks like we can forget about fielding a team for the World Cup!

We could reverse these trends, if we believed that saving the species were important enough. We could fight for better policies. Or we could accept the situation and look on the bright side: It will be a lot easier to navigate store aisles without all those annoying baby strollers.

Candidates must give their version of moonshot

This essay was first published in Newsday. Mitt Romney's mention of the late Neil Armstrong during the Republican National Convention on Thursday raised cherished images for Americans of a certain age. Those of us who remember the Apollo 11 days can still recall that excitement and sense of purpose. We're nostalgic for it now.

No one would look to the 1960s as a united decade in our history. But as Armstrong took those first steps on the moon in 1969, it became clear that a bold commitment by President John F. Kennedy had driven us forward.

Today, we are drifting through a prolonged economic valley and a divisive presidential race. Commitment to another bold goal would target our energies and revive our faith.

In his convention speech, Romney presented his version of shooting for the moon: creating 12 million new jobs. His five-point plan to reach that goal includes North American energy independence by 2020, school choice, rewritten trade agreements, a reduced deficit, and lower taxes and costs for small businesses.

It will be crucial for President Barack Obama to similarly paint his vision of the path forward during the Democratic National Convention, which opens this week.

It's hard to overestimate what a gamble Kennedy took, as a new president in May 1961, to promise a man on the moon "before this decade is out." At the time, many of the necessary metal alloys and technologies hadn't even been invented.

He intended to prove the United States' cultural and military superiority to the Soviet Union. Just a month earlier, the first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, had orbited the Earth. But the machismo of beating an opponent to conquer this so-called last frontier wasn't the only thing that was so important about Kennedy's promise. It was also having a clear goal that for many years inspired our imagination with a sense of national mission - and, after 1969, with a national identity.

We had done it first.

Where is our national identity today? U.S. astronauts must now hitch rides on Russian spacecraft to get to the International Space Station, and the United States may be outraced toward certain space goals by the Chinese.

But these developments should be cause for celebration. The United States has matured enough in space exploration to share frontiers with scientists from around the world. If globalization has its faults, then shared scientific advancement is among its bright promises.

Obama's goals for NASA are probably too far distant in time to offer much of a unifying purpose. He wants to send a crew to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025 and have an astronaut on Mars by the 2040 decade. Far-off deadlines won't force the sort of compressed technological advancement we achieved from the original space race.

Among the side benefits of that era are the ability to screen for breast tumors, defibrillate hearts, track hurricanes and ocean fish, grow higher-yielding crops and pay at the gas pump with an ATM card. A nearer, more tangible goal is needed to propel similar innovation.

It's not enough for Americans to come together around a negative, as we did after the tragic Sept. 11 attacks or the hunt for Osama bin Laden. We need to agree on what we want to accomplish.

We could commit to making our public schools so good that we stem the flight to private. Building big infrastructure projects to create jobs. Reducing mortgages to reflect the current market and prevent foreclosure. Matching young people with careers that allow them to become productive and independent.

The list goes on, and we won't all agree what should be on it. But it's certain that the prize of the next presidency depends on how each candidate imagines the next footprint on the moon.

Is marriage becoming extinct?

This essay was first published in Newsday. As poverty grows and the gap between rich and poor widens, there's a narrative developing that women may have taken this equality stuff too far.

Today, 41 percent of births in the United States occur outside of marriage, compared with 17 percent in the 1980s. The decline in marriage leaves parents - mostly mothers - to struggle alone financially. Depending on which study you read, sociologists believe that single parenting accounts for 15 to 40 percent of a family's likelihood of living in poverty.

Even Isabel Sawhill, who directs the Center on Children and Families for the moderately liberal Brookings Institution, wrote in May that former Vice President Dan Quayle was right 20 years ago about Murphy Brown: Unmarried motherhood is a bad choice. Children who grow up poor more often act up in class, become teenage parents and drop out of high school.

But this narrative implies that the rise of women's rights is to blame for all these changes - or that it is reversible. The bad news story also ignores the gains arising from the greater earning power of women, the looser divorce laws and the reduced social censure that have enabled so much single parenthood. The rate of domestic abuse has dropped steadily, for example, and women are less likely to commit suicide or be killed by an intimate partner.

Many single parents are raising wonderful children - I know several - but they don't have an easy job. We need to acknowledge that we are headed for a post-marital world, and adopt policies that will give the children of such families a better chance at a secure middle-class adulthood. Such policies will lighten the single parent's load, too, although that's no reason to oppose them.

First, we could educate teenage fathers about their responsibilities to their children. There's a lot of advice out there for girls but very little for guys. A man has the right to know whether he is the father, and to seek to be involved in raising the child. Men have a responsibility to provide financial support, and to see that decisions are being made in the child's best interest.

Counseling for couples planning to marry should be easily available. So many of us marry without a realistic view of how to live together. A handful of states - Florida, Maryland, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee - have passed legislation providing financial incentives for couples to participate in formal premarital education.

We must find other ways for kids to have more parental figures - if they can't have both biological parents - in their lives. For example, some builders have begun designing homes to accommodate multiple generations. Family rooms and dining rooms are larger, and the homes include two master bedrooms at opposite ends of the house, for privacy. Overall, the American housing market is trending toward smaller - but this home-sharing concept is part of the mix.

Living near extended family, having community centers and places of worship that attract all generations, extending the school day to accommodate extracurricular activities and homework help - these are also crucial.

If I hadn't met my husband and formed a traditional family, I may have had a child on my own. I was considering it in 1992, when the veep made his quip about Murphy Brown. Life's drive to recreate itself is very strong. That's something people don't mention often enough in these discussions.

If American marital norms are morphing into something we wouldn't have recognized 20 years ago, well, so be it. Let's take what good marriages have taught us about children's need for belonging and the influence of caring adults, and make sure we meet that need - no matter what forms our families take.

Tougher life choices for this generation

This essay was first published in Newsday. Entering adulthood used to be like wading into a gently sloping lake. You got your feet wet with a degree or job. Then maybe you found an apartment, and eventually a life partner. Soon, you were swimming in deep water.

But today, it feels as though the water gets deep fast. Young people can't just splash around and "find themselves" anymore. The world has changed.

Work can disappear with little warning. Skills grow obsolete fast. Lifetime employment and corporate loyalty are mostly things of the past. Compared to two decades ago, the average American worker puts in an extra 164 hours per year on the job, according to economist Juliet Schor. And adjusted for inflation, middle-class U.S. workers make less than they did in 1971.

These pressures mean that anyone who wants to "have it all" - career, family and leisure - needs to look way ahead. We parents would be wise to talk through the choices very explicitly with our children, especially the majority who are likely to want both work and kids.

We can explain the need for a sharply different perspective on career planning. For example, a friend of mine in her 20s who just got married says that she and others her age won't rely on working for an employer. The long hours and lack of security aren't worth it. Her plan is to run her own business and live frugally. Great idea; I hope for her sake it works out.

Another option is to choose an explicitly family-friendly career, something women have been doing for ages - a career with predictable hours and even some job security. Men increasingly are doing likewise; they make up ever more of our nurses, school teachers, bank tellers and food servers.

Even for the most ambitious, there are ways to craft a career that allows for more family time. A study of nearly 1,000 women who graduated from Harvard College between 1988 and 1991 showed that, 15 years after graduation, the ones who became doctors and lawyers had an easier time combining work and family than did those who later got an MBA. The doctors and lawyers had shifted to part-time work, opened their own practices with like-minded colleagues, or moved into the nonprofit sector or government work. The businesswomen, by contrast, faced an either-or choice: Put in grueling hours or quit.

Marissa Mayer, the new Yahoo chief executive, is an example. She's 37, will give birth this fall, and plans "a few weeks" of maternity leave during which she will continue to work. But if you want a different sort of work-family balance for yourself, then perhaps you shouldn't plan on following in her footsteps.

Stories about families working together to make hard choices are encouraging. Austrian tennis player Sybille Bammer, for example, had a child at 21 and quit competing. She went back to tennis after her life partner, and the child's father, became her coach, hitting partner and Mr. Mom. For a while, they lived on $500 a month.

Then there's Angela Braly, chief executive of health benefits giant WellPoint, whose husband left his family business for a more flexible schedule in real estate and teaching. They have three children. How do we discuss the complexities of the modern balancing act without blunting our kids' ambitions? I can hear them mocking us now: Settle for the mommy track early, dear, and save yourself a lot of angst. But that's not the message. On the contrary, what's important is figuring out what you want and planning for it, precisely so you don't end up sidetracked.

Couples considering a family should talk openly about their expectations, too. You know the old saying: If you don't know where you're going, you're sure to get there.

Study: More young women than men consider career important

Essay first published in Newsday.

It looks like Supermom is here to stay. Women ages 18 to 34, in a new survey, rated "high-paying career" high on their list of life priorities. For the first time, women in this age group outnumbered men in considering it important - 66 percent of women, compared with 59 percent of men. The last time this question was asked of this age group, in 1997, the sexes ranked "career" roughly equal in importance (56 percent of women and 58 percent of men).

At the same time, being a good parent and having a successful marriage continued to rank significantly high on everyone's list. "They haven't given any ground on marriage and parenthood," said researcher Kim Parker of the Pew Research Center, which conducted the study. "In fact, there is even more emphasis [on home life] than 10 to 15 years ago."

The story line over the past couple of decades has been that, for the most part, women would prefer to stay home with children. Those who could afford it were "opting out" of the workplace for home. The recent stir over Ann Romney's stay-at-home motherhood reawakened culturally conservative voices claiming that her choice is superior for women, and certainly better for kids.

But Parker believes that young women's expectations about the need to earn a paycheck are changing their attitudes. They were surveyed as the damage of the 2008 recession - dubbed the "mancession" for how men lost jobs disproportionately - was still playing out. "The reality is hitting women that they cannot rely on a male breadwinner," Parker says.

On a brighter note, she adds, young women have seen older women reap the fruits of workplace success and "are motivated to take on big roles." Women have been outpacing men for some time in earning college and graduate degrees. There are now three women on the Supreme Court, women play major roles in government, they're running large companies and building media empires - all of this inspires.

Pew also surveyed men and women aged 35 to 64, who responded at roughly the same rate (43 percent and 42 percent) that being successful in a high-paying career or profession is important. In 1997, middle-aged men greatly outranked women: 41 percent to 26 percent.

The big rise in middle-aged women who care about their careers probably reflects both opportunity and necessity, Parker says. But, you'll notice that young women are more positive about work than their middle-aged counterparts. Parker believes that the allure of "having it all" wears off once women are faced with the reality of supermotherhood. In fact, moms who work full time have told numerous pollsters that they would prefer part-time employment if it were available to them.

Often, scaling back from full-time work means a loss of health benefits, seniority, security and status. Employers as a whole could be doing a better job to help moms cope - and as the women in the 18-to-34 age group move up and have children, perhaps there will be more reason for employers to do so.

Governments could also be doing more to raise the quality of child care and birth leave support for both fathers and mothers.

Finally, individuals need to do a better job of thinking through their competing desires, and choose careers that accommodate parenthood well. Doctors, lawyers and accountants - and people who are willing to shift into lower-paying nonprofit or government sectors - often find more flexibility in their schedules.

Supermom is great as a concept - using all of your human abilities in a lifetime. But there's a lot more that can be done to take the risk and stress off parents' shoulders.

State 'mandates' are like cockroaches: hard to kill

First published in Newsday.

Newsday's editorial board frequently meets with people in public life: school superintendents, state and local elected officials, law-enforcement agents. And one question that comes up all the time is how to reduce the cost of public services.

It was an issue back when the only urgency was New York's position as No.1 or No.2 in the nation with the highest combined state and local tax burden - a "distinction" New York trades from year to year with New Jersey. Now, as the Great Recession has tightened the screws on public budgets everywhere, the question is more pointed: Which will it be, raise taxes or cut services?

Elected officials, candidates and community leaders usually don't want to choose between these unpopular alternatives. Sometimes they try a dodge: "Cut waste, fraud and abuse!" Hard to argue with that. No one ever campaigns for more inefficiency, dishonesty and corruption.

The other dodge - or at least that's how I thought of it until recently - was, "Cut unfunded mandates!"

"Mandates" come up often as the culprit forcing unnecessary costs on local governments and agencies - but ask for an example, and people have trouble responding. It's not that the problem doesn't exist; it's that it's so pervasive, and it's hard to know where to begin.

Mandates were once well-meaning state rules for how municipalities and school districts should do business. Now, the rules have hardened in concrete. They're bureaucracy; they're micromanagement. And, as of December, they're available in 40 pages of highly descriptive detail - 238 separate mandates - that a task force spent nearly a year compiling for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

The report from the 2011 Mandate Relief Redesign Team lists burdensome rules and paperwork like a bundle of hard knots. Permit local governments to make discretionary purchases on public works projects up to $50,000, instead of $35,000. Reduce time-consuming requirements surrounding foster care reports, while still making them useful to the courts. Allow nursing homes to keep some records electronically.

Cuomo has highlighted mandate relief in two subsequent State of the State speeches - in 2011 and again early this month. In fact, he said pretty much the same thing both times: We need to fix the problem. He had to repeat himself because, while the redesign team did come up with a long list of mandates, it got very little relief accomplished.

Why? Well, first, the team of 27 - representing schools, municipalities, the State Legislature, business and civic organizations - had to agree on which mandates to relieve. The members came up with just $410 million worth - a small drop in a $132.5-billion state budget sea. Of that, the legislature wiped out just 22 mandates - for an estimated statewide savings this year of $125 million. State agencies can save another $40 million by rewriting regulations.

Mandate relief was supposed to ride a white horse to rescue municipalities and school districts from the tough new 2 percent cap on property tax growth they must begin living with this year; $165 million won't do it.

Rather than admitting defeat, the governor and State Legislature formed a Mandate Relief Council - 11 members, including state bureaucrats and legislators - to consider the other 216 mandates. Cause for optimism is slight.

Former Gov. David A. Paterson used to float an idea that all state rules should expire at a certain date unless legislators voted to keep them. That's drastic, but it may be New York's only real hope of undoing the knotty bureaucracy that yokes this tax burden to citizens' shoulders.

Election 2012: Don't let the banks off easy

First published in Newsday.

“Can Obama lose this election?" a friend asked the other day. It's something supporters of the president are well within reason to ask these days, given the widespread economic misery that has opened a big double doorway to that possibility. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released last week, 54 percent see the current troubles as the beginning of a long-term national decline, not simply a trough for the U.S. economy that will give way to prosperity soon.

And so with a race that could tilt either way, Americans are obsessed with who's ahead in the Republican pack, and President Barack Obama's sympathizers gleefully chalk up the gaffes: restaurant executive Herman Cain's groping allegations, Texas Gov. Rick Perry's forgotten list of federal agencies to shutter, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's shifting stance on health care.

But the president will be missing a crucial responsibility over the next 11-plus months if he allows the Democratic Party's message to center on the horrors of the Republican roster. That responsibility is this: to reassure Americans that there's a candidate in the race who can't be bought and sold on Wall Street.

According to that same Journal/NBC poll, three out of four people say the nation's economic structure favors a very small proportion of the rich over the rest of us. That's an incredibly skewed perception of the basic fairness and merit-based achievement that are supposed to underlie our democracy. We aren't Dubai or Panama, are we?

No wonder half of those responding to the poll say they identify with one of this country's polar extremes: the tea party or Occupy Wall Street.

But beyond a broad disaffection fueled by high unemployment and underwater mortgages, the perceptions of poll respondents were specific to Obama as well: About three-quarters said the president has fallen short of his promises to improve oversight of the banks and Wall Street.

That's why the Obama administration's position is confounding on a proposed national settlement between big banks and federal and state officials over mortgage abuses. Attorneys general around the country are examining foreclosures made, perhaps illegally, through a hasty process known as "robo-signing." The president's people are said to be pushing for a $28-billion agreement - while a few outlier attorneys general are resisting: Eric Schneiderman here in New York, Kamala Harris in California and Beau Biden in Delaware.

Let's face it: $28 billion is a puny sum compared with the harm caused. To put it in perspective, negative equity in the housing market tops $700 billion. The government shouldn't give bankers immunity from legal liability - perhaps for any sum - but certainly not for so little, and not before a thorough investigation of banks' role in the near-meltdown of the global financial system.

In the past, a little salve on the wound - $28 billion in mortgage forgiveness, refinancing, credit counseling and legal services - might have been a very smart election-year gambit. But the economic pain and resentment of the last three years is too deep, and the Internet has made the public better informed. Reacting to news about the possible bank settlement, the Occupy Wall Street folks hoisted a sign reading, "Obama, don't be Wall Street's puppet."

Perhaps the president has good reasons for urging this settlement with the banks. If he does, he should take his case to the public. Because there's a lot more at stake than which party takes the White House. We could lose our faith that our government works for most of the people, most of the time.

Time for a 'living wage' for the middle class?

First published in Newsday.

With millions out of work, complaints about the decline in middle-class wages may seem misplaced. But without some shoring up, the middle class will remain dispirited -- and our economy, which is 70 percent dependent on consumer spending, will remain in the dumper.

It may be that there's a role for government to play in buttressing these eroding wages, which result not only in a declining standard of living, but also in a family life so pressure-filled that it leads to its own problems: angry homes, fast-food diets, dependence on alcohol and drugs.

Calling for any sort of government role during these tea party times can raise charges of socialism. But the idea of a wage that supports some minimum standard of living -- shelter, clothing, food -- has been broached on and off for more than a century.

In the late 1800s, social activists began protesting wages earned by a working-class man that were not sufficient to sustain his family, without the additional wages of working children and mothers. The Catholic Church published a fundamental social teaching, "Rerum Novarum" (on capital and labor), that read, "Wealthy owners of the means of production and employers must never forget that both divine and human law forbid them to squeeze the poor and wretched for the sake of gain or to profit from the helplessness of others."

Shortly afterward, Australia's courts ruled that an employer must pay a wage that guaranteed a standard of living that was reasonable for "a human being in a civilized community" for a family of four to live in "frugal comfort."

In the United States, these ideas led to laws forbidding child labor, making education compulsory and protecting women from exploitive labor conditions. The campaign to establish a "family wage" was defeated, but in 1938, a lower standard, the federal minimum wage, was passed.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Daniel Patrick Moynihan and in 1968, a group of 1,200 economists including Paul Samuelson and John Kenneth Galbraith, have all supported some kind of minium income guarantee.

Echoes of this debate are being heard now, in the Vatican's critique last week of the global financial system, and in places where labor unions still have some sway: In the New York City Council, which at the urging of retail workers may require employers in commercial developments built with public subsidies to pay at least $10 an hour, a "living wage" higher than the minimum wage of $7.25; and in Albany, where the State Legislature in April passed an increase to $9 an hour for home health aides, who are represented by the influential 1199 SEIU United Health Care Workers East. That increase takes effect on Long Island in 2013.

It's easy to see why the lowest-paid workers would need a boost from someone powerful enough to argue on their behalf. But to make the argument for the middle class, one has to believe that this great swath of America, nearly half the country, has special value. And it does: The stability and upward mobility of the middle class not only underpin the U.S. economy but give America its famously optimistic and innovative spirit.

That spirit is on display as the middle class makes the best of things today: The average American has added around a month's worth of work, 164 hours per year, in the last two decades. One-third of American families have reduced their savings for college, according to a 2010 Sallie Mae/Gallup poll, and another 15 percent are not saving at all. Retirement savings are in similar decline.

How much more can the middle class cinch in its belt, before we lose what's precious about this way of life?

Down times, empty suburban storefronts

First published in Newsday.

Atop sports bleachers and inside minivans across Long Island, gloom about the economy is never very far from mind. The current generation of middle-class householders is used to the normal ups and downs of the economic cycle, but none of us is prepared for a second "down" right now -- the terrifying, rumored double dip.

Recently, as I rode with some other parents along Route 110 from Huntington through the busy Melville corridor to Farmingdale, the conversation turned to how many empty buildings we were passing. One man recalled visiting a now-vacant office center to close on the purchase of his house. A favorite wedding reception hall had been demolished. The Checkers drive-through was suddenly out of business -- open one day, and stripped of its signs the next. Even the dollar store -- maddeningly misnamed "Things Over $1" -- has closed.

How does a dollar store fail during a recession, when everyone's looking for a bargain? The unspoken fear is that perhaps this time, it's something worse.

The Week magazine recently concluded that we aren't in an ordinary economic cycle, but that Americans are in the process of paying off mountains of debt. We had grown used to living on credit, and we are now regretting having covered ourselves with piles of bills just as the economy was about to stumble. For an economy that was 70 percent propelled by consumer spending, tight home budgets are incapacitating.

Others say that the emerging economy -- outsourced and technology-dependent -- is unfavorable to the middle class. It can only benefit those at the top. While economists pull apart the numbers to make sense of it all, the middle class is endeavoring to persevere.

Many are forming new philosophies about kids and college, for example. Two years at a community college add up to a potentially employable graduate with an associate's degree. Meanwhile those same two years at a four-year institution equal, perhaps, nothing more than a college dropout with loans to repay.

One acquaintance told his high school senior that if she wanted to go to a private university, she would have to pay the difference between that tuition and SUNY's. There is praise for the child who chooses the practical -- accounting or engineering -- and a roll of the eye for liberal arts majors.

Nobody says directly that money is tight, but that thought is always lurking. Without asking if we needed it, my daughter's orthodontist offered us a financing plan. While we were school shopping, the clerk at Macy's warned that the jeans we were considering cost a whopping $89.

These small kindnesses are a balm in difficult times -- especially because the opposite coarseness so often confronts us, too. School clubs demanding payment for expensive class trips. The classmate whose outfits display Abercrombie & Fitch logos. The burgher purchasing a case of good red wine, and tipping the clerk to carry it to his Cadillac Escalade SUV.

There used to be far more class trips, designer clothes and Escalades. Or, so it seemed. The new polite is to talk cheap. Where to find the best thrift stores, and bargains at the gas pump. Good buys in used cars. Off-price movie tickets.

Because even if we aren't having financial troubles, we know many who are. The new adult horror story is the acquaintance who hopped the Long Island Rail Road to attend nine job interviews with a potential employer -- only to have the company eliminate the opening in light of more bad economic news. A divorce lawyer remarked that he used to divide up assets; now he parcels out marital debt.

Long Islanders can be resilient. But we'd like to know, how much longer?

Economic trends threaten families' health

First published in Newsday

After listening to President Barack Obama's job-creation address last week, I kept coming back to the idea that he wants to give payroll tax breaks to businesses that offer people pay raises. That struck me as odd, given that unemployment stands at 9.1 percent, and you'd think that this hard-times president would be focused exclusively on getting people back to work.

But even people with jobs are facing time and money pressures in this economy, pressures that are bad for families' health.

Certainly, putting cash in people's pockets should help to rev up the listless consumer economy. But it looks like the president is also acknowledging just how much wages have eroded in the last couple of decades.

Real wages have been declining since 1983 and that means the middle class has less buying power. At the same time, the average American has added around a month's worth of work -- 164 hours per year -- in the past two decades. The number of dual-income households has risen, as well as the number of people working multiple jobs. It's not hard to imagine that people are putting in more time at work to make up for the erosion in their wages. That sounds like a very busy -- an overly busy -- middle class.

This busyness has consequences for the mental and physical health of parents and children -- and study after study substantiates this. A six-year study of 11,540 working parents in France, published in 2007, showed that people who had higher work stress or greater family demands were more likely to miss work due to poor mental health, particularly depression. Research on working parents in New York's Erie County demonstrated a relationship between family-work conflict and depression, heavy alcohol consumption, poor physical health and high blood pressure.

Time pressures also contribute to weight problems. For the first time in history, there are more overweight than underweight adults worldwide, according to new research at American University. A study published in the January-February issue of the journal Child Development found that children's body mass index rose the more years their mothers worked over their lifetimes. One explanation offered is that working parents have limited time for grocery shopping and food preparation.

Not so long ago, as a society we were asking, is it better for families if parents stay home with kids or work outside the home? Moms were usually the parents in question. Now, because of steadily declining purchasing power, for most people, it's less a matter of choice than necessity.

I have to ask myself, was this a conscious decision? Did Americans choose "working parents" as the better alternative? Was it a good direction or have we lost something in the translation? Have we perhaps given too little thought to how parents can give both their employers and their children what they need?

The financial and time pressures on families are what make us so vulnerable to implied criticisms, like those on display in Amy Chua's "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." It registered so strongly with American parents because we're insecure about having adequate resources to meet the challenges of raising children now.

It's too early to tell if the Obama tax break, if adopted, will be effective in raising people's wages, or even whether, if we made more money, we would choose to spend more time with our children. But it's worth trying to reverse some of the trends that are putting so much pressure on families' health.

Bring competition to credit rating business

First published in Newsday.

Official Washington was seized again yesterday by its preoccupation with the debt ceiling. But in a nearby hearing room, little noticed, the nation's opportunity to reform a key villain of the world financial meltdown was stealing away.

Credit ratings agencies, which stamped "AAA" on mortgage-backed securities that we now know were riddled with risk, are having their rules of operation discussed and rewritten through a comment period that closes on Aug. 8.

The condensed nature of this industry -- coiled into a small oligopoly of three: Standard & Poor's, Moody's and Fitch -- created the systemic risk that nearly cratered the world economy three years ago. Greater competition among credit raters would broaden the tools investors use to make decisions, and would add security to the financial markets. But it's not clear that's where we're headed.

The financial services reform legislation, Dodd-Frank, celebrated its first anniversary this month. One thing it requires is that the Federal Reserve and the Securities and Exchange Commission remove references to credit ratings agencies from their regulations and replace them with better standards for judging credit risk.

Those efforts were on display yesterday, at a hearing of the oversight subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee. Executives from Standard & Poor's and Moody's testified. They appear prepared to accept a new operating regime, but that may be because the rules regulators are considering "create a protective barrier around the incumbent ratings agencies and . . . make them even more central to and important for the bond markets of the future."

That was a concern raised by Lawrence J. White, an economics professor from the Stern School of Business at New York University. He recommended to the subcommittee that regulators move away from allowing banks and other institutions to outsource safety judgments to credit ratings agencies. Instead, institutions should be made to justify to regulators that their investments are safe and appropriate.

White is right to shift the burden of accountability -- but I don't care to see it rest so heavily with regulators alone. Think how many times Bernie Madoff was reported to the SEC, without effect.

Fostering competition is a good and necessary tandem approach. It's how we will evolve from the systemic risks of the last decade, to individuals placing investment bets using diverse information and resources. Individuals may guess badly, but their mistakes don't metastasize to an entire industry.

James H. Gellert, chief executive of Manhattan-based Rapid Ratings International, which seeks to knock the crown off the Big Three, compared this technological moment in the credit ratings industry to the change from typewriters to computers or from whale oil to petroleum.

Gellert and the chairman of an emerging ratings firm that bears his name, Jules B. Kroll, testified that Dodd-Frank doesn't do much to promote competition, and depending on how the SEC implements the rules, could actually quash the ability of smaller competitors to offer an alternative.

Kroll stated that the cost of compliance with the new rules is "a disincentive to entering the industry."

While the debt ceiling debate continues to crowd aside other topics, it's worth noting that credit ratings agencies are the very entities that hold the power to downgrade the U.S. Treasury debt -- or tip Greece into the "default" category.

It's important that we find a room on the center stage of our attention for three companies with that much power.

Lobbyists hover over Wall Street rules changes


First published in Newsday

For those of us who wonder whether Washington can erect sufficient safeguards against a future global financial meltdown, the news this week is hopeful.

The Center for Responsive Politics, an organization that tracks spending by big lobbying groups, says that Wall Street and the financial industry spent more trying to influence Washington in the first three months of 2011 than during the same period last year.

Maybe that doesn't sound like a good sign, but where there's cash, there's agita. The $27 million shelled out this year by banks, credit unions, investment firms and their trade groups signals concern that the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 -- also known as Dodd-Frank -- will be strict.

Lobbying is up 2.7 percent, which is remarkable considering how much lobbying was going on last year, when the bill was in the heat of a Congressional debate. Lobbyists' focus has shifted to the regulatory agencies drafting the details -- expected to stretch to 5,000 pages by the time the law takes effect in July.

As the pressure mounts in the next few weeks, Americans should keep a careful watch over the process. This is an industry with a particularly strong influence -- and one that hasn't paid much of a price for the damage it's caused. The industry's intensified lobbying effort doesn't hint at a Wall Street that's chastened. Quite the opposite.

Michigan Democrat Sen. Carl Levin has just produced a report saying that Goldman Sachs executives may have misled Congress about the company's mortgage stock bets at the expense of the firm's clients. Yet the report has sparked little outcry -- save for that of hypercritic former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, now a CNN pundit, who said that Attorney General Eric Holder should resign if he does not pursue criminal charges against Goldman.

For most of Washington, though, it appears sometimes that "saving" the financial industry is more important than equal treatment under the law.

"We're going through Dodd-Frank literally line by line," said Rep. Michael Grimm (R-Staten Island), a freshman who campaigned on now-distant tea party promises to slash government spending and stop economic bailout efforts. "We don't want to be a burden on a sector that quite frankly is extremely important," he said.

Grimm is a member of the House Financial Services Committee, which is considering an industry-friendly bill that would delay implementation of rules on derivatives trading -- that wellspring of toxic assets that were so instrumental in the 2008 housing market crash.

Another bill would water down the structure of the nascent Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, replacing a single director with a five-person commission. The commission would include a maximum of three from each political party. Hello, gridlock.

The most pitched battle is over a cap on debit card swipe fees, a business that ballooned to $16.2 billion in 2009 as people have come to rely on plastic for everyday purchases. Banks and credit card companies charge retailers a fee every time someone uses a debit or prepaid card, and businesses pass those costs on to consumers through generally higher prices. All in all, it has a depressing effect on an already sluggish economy.

The average debit card transaction costs only about 4 cents to process, yet banks, MasterCard and Visa charge store owners about 44 cents per transaction. Regulators recommend a 12-cent maximum fee, which they believe is "reasonable and proportional" to the actual cost.

But reasonable and proportional may be alien concepts for people who are spending $9 million a month in campaign money, constituent visits, endorsement letters and media campaigns in legislators' home districts. Brazen -- now that's more like it.