The clock watchers were in for a huge letdown

CODA

GREG BEAN

My favorite part of the government shutdown thatwasn’t, was the clocks. Nearly every network and news organization had them, counting down the hours and seconds until midnight onApril 9, when the government would run out of money unless a budget agreement was reached between Congress and the White House, and “nonessential” government employees would have to be furloughed and lots of government-operated enterprises, like national parks, would have to close.

On CNN at one point, the graphics department put a really humongous shutdown clock right behind the talking heads, making the clock larger than the actual human beings covering the story. And over at Fox, they’d apparently dusted off the clock they used to cover events at the Olympics and were running a shutdown clock keeping time to a tenth of a second. Wow! The pressure! The drama!

I kept wondering what the various graphics department had up their sleeves if midnight came without an agreement. Would they Photoshop a big ball dropping on Washington, D.C.? Would Dick Clark turn up and lead us in a chorus of “Auld Lang Syne?” Would the clocks start to run backward? Would they start marking the time of the actual shutdown? Or would they start marking the time until voters have the well-deserved opportunity to boot the people responsible for the fiasco out of office, like they did after the last shutdown 15 years ago ?

Sadly, we never got the chance to find out.

It seemed like nobody knew precisely what would happen if a shutdown actually occurred, but everyone assured us that it would be BAD, sort of like they did in the run-up to Y2K, which turned out to be a bit of a fizzler.

There were lots of stories about what would happen to people waiting for government money, like folks on Social Security, and stories about how paychecks for service members might be delayed, and other stories about how people might not get their passports in time. There were stories about what a long-term shutdown might do to the housing market and the fragile economy in general. And there were lots of stories about what closing the national parks would mean to people who showed up to visit for a day, to enjoy long-planned and expensive vacations, or how children might be disappointed because they couldn’t visit the Statue of Liberty.

You know what I kept thinking? Why should it matter if the government shuts down? The national parks and monuments belong to the American people, after all. We — you and me and everyone who’s ever paid federal tax or is a citizen — own them lock, stock and barrel. So if the government abrogates its responsibility to maintain and manage them, and sends its park rangers home on furlough, why should the government have any right to keep us — the owners — out in its absence? Seems that instead of turning visitors away at the gates, a shutdown ought to mean a “king’s X” on entry and user fees for the duration.

Sure, there might be some unfortunate examples of natural ordering between grizzly bears and unsupervised visitors in Yellowstone Park if there are no rangers around to mediate disputes, and there might be other accidents in dangerous places like the Grand Canyon. But a bit of danger is understood whenever you venture out into a wild place, and in fact that’s part of the allure. Millions of people enjoy outdoor activities in wilderness and wild areas that aren’t national parks every day, and that seems to work out pretty well.

Just something to think about next time a shutdown looms on the horizon, or actually happens. If the government shuts down and you want to visit a national park or monument, just show up and walk in like you own it

— because you do. After it’s over, we can charge the government employees a fee to get back in.

  

In all the rhetoric in the debate over Gov. Chris Christie’s proposal to reform the tenure system for teachers in this state, I’m confused over some of the numbers floating around.

For example, to illustrate his contention that the tenure system protects bad teachers, Christie has frequently claimed that of 100,000 teachers inNewJersey, only 17 tenured teachers have been fired in the last decade for incompetence or other personnel issues. That’s a mind-boggling number, if it’s true. If he’s right and my math is correct, it means that if you’re a tenured teacher here, you’ve only got a .00017 chance of getting fired for stinking at your job. Show me another industry, anywhere, with similar numbers, and I’ll eat my hat, and yours too.

The New Jersey EducationAssociation says Christie is wrong, and that the 17 were just the number that lost their appeals. The NJEAcould not provide a better number when asked, however. A couple of years ago, the Washingtonbased Center for Union Facts put the number higher, and said that out of 100,000 teachers, 47 were fired in the 10-year period between 1995 and 2005. Even at the higher number, though, it means that once a teacher is tenured in New Jersey, he or she has only a .00047 percent chance of being fired for incompetence.

So here’smy challenge to both Christie and theNJEA: show us the proof. Show us the data your claims are based upon and let us decide who is right.

And while you’re at it, almost everyone agrees that of 55,000 teachers working in New York City schools, 10 of them were fired last year for incompetence (a .00018 chance of getting fired) and they also agree that it costs about $250,000 to fire one incompetent teacher in that city ($2.5 million for all 10). But I’ve never read what it costs to do the same thing in New Jersey. Does anyone out there have an estimate aboutwhatwe spent to give those 17, or 47, incompetent teachers their pink slips? If you do, I’m sure we’d love to hear it.

Knowing the answers to those two questions might help us decide which side we’re on in this debate. Numbers, someone? Anyone?

Gregory Bean is the former executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at gbean@gmnews.com.