Wednesday, February 25, 2009

President's speech sets economic course

President Obama’s Speech to the Joint Session of Congress is being lauded by many, and predictably, panned by those on the other side.


David Brooks said, "I thought it was an excellent speech. It's been a long time since I've really been able to rave over an Obama speech, but I thought this was a speech that perfectly captured the tenor of the country."

Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic wrote, "It was a tough speech, threading the needle between sobriety about the times we live in and hope, and between the challenges we're facing (particularly in the economic and political environment) and the policies Obama wants to pursue."

David Gergen, on CNN's Anderson Cooper program, 360 offered, "This was the most ambitious president we've heard in this chamber in decades. The first half of the speech was FDR fighting for the New Deal. The second half was Lyndon Johnson fighting for the Great Society and we have never seen those two presidents rolled together in quite this way before."


Rich Lowery, at National Review Online wrote: It probably sounded good to most Americans, who desperately want Obama to succeed. Whether it's as plausible or credible when Obama comes back to speak to a joint session of Congress next year is the $1 trillion question.

Will Wilkinson, Cato Institute blogger had this to offer: "Oratorywise, so good. Ideawise, so weak. Combination, so dangerous."

Unfortunately, I couldn’t devote my full attention to the speech because after nearly 48 hours of being without power, I was elbows deep cleaning out my refrigerator and freezer of food that had to be thrown out. Since my freezer had defrosted, I took the opportunity to whip up a bucket of soap and bleach and hot water and I became Captain Homemaker. I did have the speech on the radio, however, following along.

The president got off to a rousing start in the second paragraph when he laid out the issue of the economy and those being hurt by it.

I know that for many Americans watching right now, the state of our economy is a concern that rises above all others. And rightly so. If you haven't been personally affected by this recession, you probably know someone who has -- a friend; a neighbor; a member of your family. You don't need to hear another list of statistics to know that our economy is in crisis, because you live it every day. It's the worry you wake up with and the source of sleepless nights. It's the job you thought you'd retire from but now have lost; the business you built your dreams upon that's now hanging by a thread; the college acceptance letter your child had to put back in the envelope. The impact of this recession is real, and it is everywhere.

But while our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken, though we are living through difficult and uncertain times, tonight I want every American to know this: We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.

I also liked this section:

The fact is our economy did not fall into decline overnight. Nor did all of our problems begin when the housing market collapsed or the stock market sank. We have known for decades that our survival depends on finding new sources of energy. Yet we import more oil today than ever before. The cost of health care eats up more and more of our savings each year, yet we keep delaying reform. Our children will compete for jobs in a global economy that too many of our schools do not prepare them for. And though all these challenges went unsolved, we still managed to spend more money and pile up more debt, both as individuals and through our government, than ever before.

In other words, we have lived through an era where too often short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity; where we failed to look beyond the next payment, the next quarter, or the next election. A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy instead of an opportunity to invest in our future. (Applause.) Regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit at the expense of a healthy market. People bought homes they knew they couldn't afford from banks and lenders who pushed those bad loans anyway. And all the while, critical debates and difficult decisions were put off for some other time on some other day.

I won’t go step-by-step through it. You can read it, however, in its entirety, here.

The Republican response was an interesting one, in my opinion, with the choice of Louisiana Governor, Bobby Jindal. Just 37 days into the presidency of Barack Obama, the loyal opposition has apparently made a decision to begin their quest to capture the oval office in 2012. Jindal, who political pundits have already identified as a potential front runner for the GOP nomination in 2012 (how the heck can you knight someone as "front runner" four years out?), gave a somewhat dour assessment of the president's speech to congress.

Jindal, to his credit, parsed his remarks as a "philosophical difference" in how to govern, and I totally agree that there are certainly two methods of proceeding through our current economomic morass.

"In the end, it comes down to an honest and fundamental disagreement about the proper role of government," Jindal said. "We oppose the national Democratic view that says the way to strengthen our country is to increase dependence on government. We believe the way to strengthen our country is to restrain spending in Washington, to empower individuals and small businesses to grow our economy and create jobs.

"In recent years, these distinctions in philosophy became less clear -- our party got away from its principles. Tonight, on behalf of our leaders in Congress and my fellow Republican governors, I say this: Our party is determined to regain your trust," Jindal said.

The entire transcript to Governor Jindal's response can be read here.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Awaiting economic stimulus

On my way back from driving my wife to the airport, I caught Charles Colgan, USM economist, saying that he wasn't sure that the stimulus package was large enough to give Maine's economy the boost that it needs. That's interesting, because another economist, Paul Krugman, is also saying similar things.

Krugman, professor of economics at Princeton University and also a Nobel Prize winner, was speaking this morning on CNBC, where he was discussing his views on the stimulus package. According to Krugman, the $787 billion stimulus is not nearly enough to fill the "well over $2 trillion hole" in the economy, Krugman said. "A fair bit of the bill is not really stimulus," he added, noting that just about $650 billion would actually spur consumer spending and other types of stimulus.

It is "pretty likely" that the Obama administration will try and pass a second stimulus package in the next few months, Krugman said.

Krugman added that the economy is likely to remain depressed for at least two years, but probably much longer than that.

Yesterday, I spoke with a gentleman, who was visiting the Lewiston CareerCenter for the first time. He had been laid off after 19 years of employment, by a local manufacturer that produces materials for the U.S. auto industry. His reason for visiting was to inquire about a CNC Machinist's training being held at Central Maine Community College, in May. There are 24 slots available.

The CareerCenter's lobby is regularly jammed by the area's growing population of the recently unemployed. In fact, to handle the swell of unemployment claimants, who are forced to come to their local CareerCenters to get assistance filing their claims, the Lewiston office has now added extended hours during the week, as well as being open on Saturdays, beginning February 21. This is a direct response to serve the needs of laid off workers. While the U.S. unemployment rate is currently being reported as being under 10 percent, some claim this number is underreported and that nationwide, the actual rate is actually in double digits.

Nicholas Von Hoffman, in The Nation, has a column about unemployment where he mentions our state by saying that, "In Maine there are skilled carpenters knocking on doors, asking for any kind of work, shoveling snow or stacking firewood. "

One solution to the economic downturn is retraining, preparing people for the employer needs of the 21st century. Unfortunately, job training funds were less than adequate prior to the economic downturn. I remain watchful to see if the proposed funding coming to Maine will actually get directed to help people like the aforementioned laid off worker, and others like him.

Sorry for the gloomy report. I'll leave you with a positive, however. JobAngels is an online community with a simple mission--helping one person at a time find gainful employment. Here's a longer post about what it is that they do.

If you're on Twitter, you can follow them there.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Did You Know?

This video titled, "Did You Know?" is the product of Karl Fisch, a school teacher from Colorado, and Scott McLeod, a professor at Iowa State University.

Fisch maintains a blog, as does McLeod, about the state of education in the U.S.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Lewiston leads the way

The WorkReady™ Credential (WRC) program, now in its third year, originated in Lewiston as a pilot project in the spring of 2006. A training initiative designed to provide employers with the basic skills they were looking for in candidates, the Lewiston program has become the model for what is now a statewide program.

Graduates of the 60-hour soft skills program are required to demonstrate competency around seven standards. Each candidate, in order to receive the WorkReady™ Credential must be able to:
  • Identify personal motivations & challenges as keys to success as employees
  • Develop a plan for employment
  • Understand how to communicate effectively
  • Demonstrate effectiveness in working with others
  • Know how to apply for a job
  • Have knowledge of basic business practices
  • Demonstrate awareness of safety information & its importance

The graduation ceremony was held at the Lewiston Regional Technical Center's new state-of-the-art culinary arts facility. Local businesses, representing financial services, manufacturing, healthcare, customer service, telecommunications, and printing attended the portfolio review portion of the program. Each graduate was able to speak to employers about their work history, skills and abilities, as well as ask employers about opportunities at their place of business.

Additionally, staff members from both Senator Snowe's and Senator Collins' local offices, as well as Congressman Michaud's office were in attendance, and representatives from the City of Lewiston, several community-based organizations, Maine's Department of Labor, and members of the collaborative partnership that have made WorkReady™ possible also were present.

Several of the graduates will be moving on to a 14-week CNC Machinist training, which will begin in May, at Central Maine Community College.

For those who may not know about the positives happening in Lewiston/Auburn, check out Matt Jacobsen's article in Mainebiz, where he highlights the proactive approach of the two communities in developing the transportation, distribution, and logistics sector.

Jacobsen's article highlights the efforts of local leaders to recognize the strengths of Lewiston/Auburn, and efforts like WorkReady™ are part of that approach, developing a topnotch regional workforce, which will pay dividends, particularly in the next year, or two, when the economy rebounds.

[Lewiston's latest WorkReady™ graduating class]

Credit where credit's due

For our friends (and Congressional reps from Ohio) that continue to engage in historical revisionism concerning FDR, and the New Deal, primarily to discredit the Obama administration's stimulus package, here's a chart that might help you decide whether FDR's version of economic stimulus worked. For those unfamiliar with reading charts, growth in GDP (upward tick) is a good thing.

For our two senators, getting an earful from some constituents, here are a few talking points on why the stimulus is a good thing.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Maine's senators support stimulus

By a 61-36 vote, the Senate voted for cloture on the Obama stimulus package. Maine's two Republican senators, Snowe and Collins, joined Arlen Specter, in crossing the aisle to support the bill, the only members of the GOP to who voted for it.

Robert Reich, secretary of labor under President Clinton, says it's all about partisan politics and the mid-term elections in 2010, as to why only three Republicans are supporting jump starting the economy and putting people back to work.

Weighing in via his blog, had this to say.

Why are Senate Republicans (all, that is, except the lonely moderates Collins, Snowe, and Specter) nixing the stimulus package, as House Republicans did? Not because Obama failed to compromise -- he gave them the tax breaks they wanted, included a whopper for business. Not because Senate Democrats failed to bend -- they agreed to trim more than $100 billion out of a previous version of the bill. Not because Senate Republicans are doctrinally opposed to deficit spending -- many of them happily voted for Bush spending and tax cuts that doubled the federal debt.

The reason has to do with the timing of the economic recovery. If everything goes as well as possible and the stimulus and next round of bank bailouts work perfectly, a turnaround could begin as early as mid-2010. But even under this rosy scenario, employers wouldn't start rehiring until late 2010 because they'll want to be sure the upturn is for real (employment typically lags in a recovery). This means that under the best of circumstances -- assuming the stimulus is big enough to jump-start the economy and the next bank bailout big enough to get credit moving -- most Americans won't feel much better than they do now by November, 2010. Unemployment could easily be hovering close to 8 percent; underemployment, close to 14 percent; and many other indicators, still in the doldrums.

Republicans don't want their fingerprints on the stimulus bill or the next bank bailout because they plan to make the midterm election of 2010 a national referendum on Barack Obama's handling of the economy. They know that by then the economy will still appear sufficiently weak that they can dub the entire Obama effort a failure -- even if the economy would have been far worse without it, even if the economy is beginning to turn around. They'll say "he wanted more government spending, and we said no, but we didn't have the votes. Elect us and we'll turn the economy around by cutting taxes and getting government out of the private sector."

Pretty cynical, if you ask me, but, hey; that's politics, right?

Maine's crumbling infrastructure, with roads rating a grade of D, and bridges that rate a D+, better hope some stimulus money finds its way to our remote corner of the northeast. Not only would the infrastructure upgrades benefit our state, but an additional 6,000 to 7,000 construction jobs, paying middle class wages, would go a long way towards plugging the holes in the state revenue shortfalls.

It's nice to know that my two senators "get it," when it comes to addressing the economic issues facing the country, while the GOP candidate for president, "Mr. Bipartisan," doesn't.

Just 24 minutes until POTUS addresses the American people, in his first prime time performance.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

It's not just about boats anymore

I’m not sure when Ken Priest, Sr. developed his first prototype for a boat 60 years ago, he ever envisioned where his boat-building company was headed.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and Kenway Corporation is now known as a technology innovator in composites, as evidenced when the American Composites Manufacturing Association (ACMA) conferred its 2009 “Award for Composites Excellence (ACE)” to the Augusta, Maine-based company at their Composites & Polycon 2009 event. Kenway received ACMA’s Award for Technical Innovation for Corrosion Applications for its FRP Abrasion/Corrosion Resistant Blind Flange.

While award-winning, 1,200 pound composite flange is used in a power industry flue gas desulphurization project. Large composite parts like this kind of flange typically warp significantly during traditional open-molding manufacturing, resulting in costly post-machining. But a new nanotechnology, combined with Kenway’s proprietary vacuum infusion process, now allows for single-session infusions of high fiber-content structural laminates exceeding 6” in thickness without degrading the structural properties of the laminate or causing the typical warping, something which is a real challenge for traditional inhibitor-based systems. In fact, thus far Kenway has demonstrated that it can maintain tolerances of less than 0.005” per foot while using this process. As a result of this technology, Kenway was able to manufacture a part which exceeded the customer’s technical specifications while also dramatically reducing manufacturing costs, thereby making the company far more competitive in the marketplace.

This kind of technological innovation among Maine’s composite companies has been facilitated by Maine’s North Star Alliance Initiative. NSAI was established in 2006 and is an example of an industry-led collaborative, synthesizing business, R&D, education, workforce, and economic development resources specifically targeting Maine’s composites and boatbuilding industries. Through the initiative, Maine was able to attract composite industry experts such as Andre Cocquyt and develop workforce training programs so that Maine’s composites and boatbuilding businesses could combine world-leading craftsmanship with cutting-edge manufacturing technology. Kenway Corporation has partnered closely with NSAI to grow the company’s manufacturing expertise and make the technological advances that ultimately lead to this national award.

Of course, not everyone comes into contact with a 1,200 pound flange on a daily basis. However, every time you take your debit/credit card down to your local ATM machine, the housing/surround that protects the cash dispenser is a composite material, possibly manufactured by Kenway.

The ACMA award isn’t the only recent recognition that Kenway has received. In June, The Maine Manufacturing Extension Partnership (Maine MEP) honored Kenway with their Manufacturer of the Year award. This award is presented every year to a company that has achieved world-class manufacturing status and has implemented best manufacturing practices required to advance in the marketplace.

Augusta’s Kenway Corporation is another example of a Maine manufacturer making innovative products, embracing 21st century technologies, and providing employment opportunities for jobseekers willing to learn some employer-specific skills.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Stimulus, or no

Over the weekend, I received an email from a group urging me to contact my congressional representatives, asking them to vote against the stimulus package. How I got on this particular group's email listserv is beyond me, since I'm a registered independent, and no longer run the partisan political circuit.

Regardless of where one's political bread gets buttered, the economic reality for many in the U.S. is that things are bad, and they anticipate it could get worse. Given that scenario, the political posturing taking place on both sides, frankly, pisses me off!

The FT's Clive Crook has this to say about the political wrangling taking place:

Neither side seems to care much about delivering the fastest and most effective stimulus the country can get. Both believe that more important issues are at stake. They dress it up, of course, but most Democratic politicians would rather see more people thrown out of work than cut taxes any further, which would please the rich and erode the party’s capacity to do good works. Most Republican politicians carry a mutation of the same intellectual disease. They too would prefer a worse recession to yielding an inch, now they are no longer in power, to bigger government.

One of the best things I've done in my own life has been to disconnect from partisan talk radio, and even NPR, in my car. In doing so, I'm listening to books on CD, which I'm sure has lowered my blood pressure, and made me a heck of a lot saner. I've also been able to see parallels between these economic hard times, and a period of time some 70 years earlier. My current choice of listening material is Nick Taylor's American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the W.P.A., which details FDR's creation of the Works Progress Administration, and how the 32nd president put the country back to work, and gave people hope during dark economic times.

Taylor, the author, had an Op-Ed published back in December, comparing FDR's efforts to put people back to work on public infrastructure projects, with our current president's plan to stimulate the U.S. economy.

I find solace in history, and of late, I've come to believe that much of America's lack of political sophistication (and the ease with which many Americans are led around by the nose by demagogues, left and right) stems from our ignorance of the past. I posted something about that this morning, before coming into work, on my own blog.

Times are tough, as Laurie Ruettimann alluded to today, at Punk Rock HR. Many of the people that darken the doors of Maine's CareerCenters are hurting; out of work, struggling to pay bills, burdened with worries about the future, unemployment benefits, or not.

There are some that find reason to demonize the downtrodden and destitute. I guess that's easy to do, if you've never walked a mile in another's moccassins. But as someone who has struggled to find work, pay bills, and keep a roof over my family's head in the past, I'm moved to compassion for others, and hope that resources might be made available to provide Americans with some hope, and give them a leg up, and a job to feel good about.