Rewards and Handouts

The Armory at Penn State, since torn down.
I’m not sure where I’d be today without an education, but I suspect it wouldn’t any place enviable. I probably wouldn’t even know what the word “enviable” meant, except I learned it in high school during the 1950s when a good public education was to be had by many.

Still, I am looking askance at President Obama’s proposal to provide free tuition for 9 million students attending community colleges nationwide. The president argues that education helps individuals rise to higher economic levels, which is in turn good for the country. The more you earn the more you spend and the more you pay in taxes.

But the proposal is fraught with problems. As The New York Times’ story reports, not everybody needs it, but everybody would get it. In order to keep it for the three-year maximum, a student would need a 2.5 average, which is trending toward a B minus. In other words, it’s a high C plus. Why not demand a B, a 3.0?

The problem goes deeper than that. It puts the faculty member in the position of deciding who continues on the gravy train and who doesn’t. We had a situation like this during the Vietnam War when males with high grades didn’t get drafted and faculty became the equivalent of draft boards.

I went to college with a government subsidy that had I not had would have meant 20 years in the Navy. But because of the G.I. Bill, I earned four years of tuition and got an undergraduate degree.

And that’s what’s missing from the president’s proposal: There is no requirement that the person getting the government largess earn it in the first place. Taxpayers might find the idea more palatable if they saw it as a reward for service rendered rather than a handout.


Santa Claus in Cuba

A street artist in downtown Havana
One of the comments you’ve read more than once about President Obama’s overtures to Cuba is that the embargo hasn’t worked so it’s time to try something different. In a way, though, the embargo has worked: It has demonstrated once again that a Communist government serves only itself, not the people.

And as some commentators have pointed out, Cubans realized a long time ago that Castro had failed and that it was his fault, not the United States’.

The way the embargo failed, of course, is that it did not result in regime change. The same brothers who were running Cuba a half a century ago are still in power. And the other day, brother Raul declared that Cuba was not abandoning communism. Whether or not that was for internal politics or not, change is in the air, but I would suggest it will come slowly, a victim of bad decisions made decades ago.

I like to compare Communist China and Cuba. China under Mao was once a closed society with no middle class and a lot of  people thinking socialism was the life of Riley. But that changed when China opened the door; the country I first visited in 1994 has changed dramatically. In 1994, the streets of Beijing were dimly lit. Today the city beams like Las Vegas. There’s a middle class. Some of my 1994 students own their own apartments and cars. In 2005, one of them admitted to me that he never saw that coming in 1994.

But will the same thing happen in Cuba?

The Castro boys nationalized businesses and chased investors. The Bacardi family still makes rum, only in Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States. Hershey still makes chocolate but gets its sugar elsewhere. In general, Cuba not only chased the very businesses that could be used today to employ Cubans, the government dismantled the infrastructure.

Unlike China, which could offer cheap labor, Cuba has nothing to offer the world other than the climate. It can become a tourist mecca—or you can enjoy the same climate and stay in the United States by visiting Puerto Rico—but a country built on one industry has a shaky infrastructure. If somebody sneezes after visiting Cuba, will tourists stay away?

Loosening restrictions was a good move by Obama. Benefits will accrue to the United States down the road. The losers will be the Castro boys and communism.

And if you look to Beijing today, consider that one of my former students tweeted: “Spooky to see so many Santas on the streets of BJ. Even spookier when a taxi app announces Santa's coming to get you.”

Mao who? Fidel who? In the end, it's Santa Claus.


One for the Marines

Whenever I meet a Marine veteran, I like to tell him about my last two years in the Navy. That’s when I served on a commodore’s staff in the amphibious Navy and we would take Marines to the Mediterranean on six-month deployments and relive D-day landings at all of the important World War II sites.

Toward the end of my second and last cruise, several of us had a chance to take a group trip from a port in Italy to Munich. We went by train, of course, from Italy through the Brenner Pass in the Alps, through Austria and on to Germany. (I was hoping they’d rename the pass in my honor, but that hasn’t happened yet and we’re nearly 50 years out from my trip.)

I was one na├»ve sailor. At the time there was a rule that you were not allowed to bring civilian clothes on a ship—so I didn’t. But when we boarded the train for Munich, all in uniform, it wasn’t long before everyone in our group was in civvies. There were two exceptions—me and a Marine.

It was really no big deal until we got to the border checkpoint at Austria. A border guard walking through the train said that military were not allowed in Austria and that the Marine had to remove his blouse. The result would be a guy in khaki trousers and a T-shirt, which is not military uniform.

Sitting next to the Marine, I immediately offered to take off my jumper.

The guard shook his head no.

“Military only,” he said.

I was crestfallen. I wasn’t military.

Then again, why would anyone in landlocked Austria consider the Navy military?


What We Don’t Need in Pennsylvania

Voters decided the other day to oust an inept Republican governor in favor of a Democrat and to increase the number of Republicans in the State Legislature. It almost looks like a mirror image of Washington.

Let’s hope that the new governor and the legislators work for the benefit of Pennsylvania, not their political bases, and help bring the Commonwealth out of the dark ages. We do not need—or want—gridlock in Harrisburg.

Compromise is not a dirty word. It is the art of the possible.

R Thomas Berner
Benner Township


A Way with Words

The other day I waxed indignant on Facebook when Leroy Jethro Gibbs of NCIS, a Marine veteran, used the word “boat” to refer to a ship. It’s a common mistake that civilians make, but Gibbs, now working for the Navy, should know better. Besides, as a Marine veteran he’s no doubt made several cruises with an amphibious task force, although I don’t recall that he was with me on the two I made as a Navy radioman on a commodore’s staff.

Someone made the comment that it didn’t matter and pointed out—disdainfully—that some curators also wax indignant when people refer to a painting as a picture. As long as the communication is clear, what’s the issue, the person asked.

Clarity and precision.

A picture can be a painting, a photograph, a drawing, a petroglyph, etc. You get the picture. A painting is a picture with certain attributes, starting with how it was made.

The person asking the question fails to recognize general and specific terms. Let’s hope the FB discussion showed her the light.


Columbus Did Discover America

I know it is not politically correct to say this, but let’s face it: Columbus discovered America.

The major argument against giving him credit for discovering America is that people were already here, it had already been discovered. That’s half true in that there were Native Americans living from north to south and south to north, many probably unaware of the others.

But that’s just it. There was no America. There was a land mass on which discrete groups of people, from the Iroquois to the Mayans, lived. But the groups were not united under major governments and never conducted business very far from their villages.

As we all know, Columbus set sail looking for India. And why did he want to find a shortcut to India? Riches.

He wasn’t interested in creating a better society; he was interested in finding riches for the royal family of Spain. Others followed him, most with the same goal in mind.

Out of that came America, the continuing quest for riches. Columbus didn’t invent that quest, but he certainly extended it when he discovered America.

So like it or not, for better or worse, Columbus discovered America. Remember that on payday and when all the bills come due. 


For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge

I am growing weary of the use of the word fuck or variations thereof in movies and television shows. “You better not fuck with me, Mickey,” or “Watching yourfuckingself, Ray,” just two made-up quotes based on the excellent TV show Ray Donovan.

We went to see Jersey Boys in Vegas a few years ago. It was a good show, but every third word was fuck. I complained to my wife and she said: Well, that’s the way it was then. (I didn’t ask her how she knew.)

I know that, I replied, but that doesn’t mean they have to use it so many times in the show.

And to top it off, one of our daughters took her daughter to see the show! (The dialogue in the movie, written by the same people who wrote the show, was not so overwhelming.)

I’m hardly old fashion. As I like to say, I was in the Navy; I can make Madonna blush. But what’s  happened is that the word has lost is potency through overuse. Even Donovan’s wife uses the word. About the only place it’s not heard is on the three networks, which have to deal with the FCC and the religious right.

Just the other day a reporter on an Alaska television news program used the word. Here’s what Romenesko reported:
She told viewers: “[I] will be dedicating all of my energy toward fighting for freedom and fairness, which begins with legalizing marijuana here in Alaska. And as for this job, well, not that I have a choice but, fuck it, I quit.”

The station manager subsequently apologized for the “inappropriate language.” Obviously, he doesn’t get out much.