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Thirty-Three Billion Balloons in a Strange Land

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Our dysfunctional and surly Congress magically came together, last week, skipping across the political minefield of the sequester.

Days earlier, the Obama Administration had announced a cut of air traffic controllers’ workload (one working day in ten) to meet the sequester’s requirement for a 4 percent reduction in the FAA budget. Obama had, in effect, decided to take 4 percent “off the top.” Well, with lightning speed and abundant comity, Congress adjusted the impact on air traffic controllers to lessen flight delays . . . just in time for their own flights home to take their much-deserved vacation from all that hard work serving the people.


Score one for Public Choice theory.

But following the Cui bono lead places you in strange locales in this stranger-by-the-day land of ours.

When I was in school, some kids cheated. Today, it’s the teachers who cheat.

Former Atlanta schools superintendent Beverly Hall and 34 other school employees, including high-level administrators, principals and teachers, were recently booked in Atlanta’s Fulton County Jail after being indicted on 65-criminal counts, including racketeering, theft, conspiracy, making false statements and witness tampering as part of the nation’s largest ever cheating scandal.

Just four years ago, Hall was the National Superintendent of the Year. Now, she faces 45 years in prison for having allegedly snagged almost $600,000 in bonus income for higher test scores achieved through fraudulently changing students’ test answers.

Atlanta is hardly the only place widespread cheating by education officials has been discovered or suspected. An investigation found 60 Pennsylvania schools had cheated on standardized tests, 29 of those schools located in Philadelphia. Organized cheating is suspected in schools in New York City and Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

If we had cheated on a test, what would the reaction have been?

When it comes to teacher-masterminded cheating there appears to be a different standard:

  • Jena McGregor, in her Washington Post column on leadership, wrote: “But as unsettling as the Atlanta case may be, here’s the thing: It was probably bound to happen somewhere, if not on such a massive scale. Take an overly simplistic set of measurements, add sizable monetary rewards, throw in human failings, and you have a recipe for gaming the system.”
  • Dr. Christopher Emdin of Columbia University Teachers College argued in the Huffington Post that the “culture of education creates a context that encourages cheating and then rewards them for it.” Though, the Professor felt the need to add, “I am not saying that educators and school officials who cheat on tests or conspire to cover up cheating should not be reprimanded.”
  • “What we do know is that these cheating scandals have been a result of test-obsessed school reform,” explained Valerie Strauss, a Post education writer.

Imagine for a moment the “reprimand” we might have received at school and at home had we been found cheating on a test years ago back in school. And then consider how much worse we would have made it for ourselves, at least at home, had we suggested our actions were somehow the result of a bad “recipe” or “culture” or a “test-obsessed” system.

Speaking of cheating, it turns out that’s how the President of the United States got his name on the ballot for Indiana’s Democratic presidential primary back in 2008. Now, I’m not saying Barack Obama was a party to the fraudulent behavior; he wasn’t — but Mr. Obama was the beneficiary.

Granted, Hillary Clinton’s campaign also forged petitions in Indiana’s second congressional district, where both candidates needed 500 valid voter signatures. Clinton garnered 704 scribbles, of which as many as 130 were proven in court to be fraudulent; Obama had only 534, with as many as 90 forged. Had this been discovered at the time, Clinton, unlike Obama, would have still had enough signatures to qualify, leaving her the only Democratic choice on the Indiana ballot.

The culprits for Clinton and Obama were longtime St. Joseph County Democratic Party Chairman Butch Morgan and then county Board of Elections worker Dustin Blythe — both convicted last week — and two other Board of Elections workers, who previously pled guilty. In other words, it was an inside job.


Another inside job that just keeps jobbing the little taxpaying people of Montgomery County, Maryland, is the stranglehold the county’s public employee unions have on the county council. For years, county employees were allowed, arguably encouraged, to use very minor disabilities to retire at close to full pay.

“What’s most noteworthy about the saga,” The Washington Post editorialized after the passage of a measure reforming the disability retirement system, “is the monumental political effort that was required to fix a scheme that was so obviously rife with abuse.”

Calling it a “scam,” the paper pointedly offered, “Montgomery taxpayers can blame the influence of the Fraternal Order of Police and other public-employee unions, which fought tooth and nail to preserve and protect a massively inefficient and corruption-prone arrangement.”

Now, in tough times, after taking nearly five years to fix an obviously corrupt system, the county council is moving ahead with union contracts that bestow double-digit raises on county employees — 20 percent for fire fighters, 15 for police officers, and 14 percent for other government workers.

Enough. It gets to where you need a break from the ugly politics of running government for the sake of the governors at the expense of the governed.

Let’s throw a party!

We can use the federal government’s huge reserve of helium to fill 33 billion balloons — that’s more than 100 balloons for every man, woman and child!


Think of all the fun, the harmonic convergence, the national unity as we all share an experience, and last, but not least, the balloons as they rise into the atmosphere could create enough shade to perhaps reverse global warming.

I only mention the idea because the Congress is having trouble deciding what to do with all of its excess noble gas, i.e. the federal helium reserve (located under the Texas Panhandle). Several presidents and many in Congress have said they want to shut down the silly program, in existence now for nearly 100 years, since the age of helium-powered zeppelins. But last Friday, the U.S. House voted 394 to 1 to keep it.


Can’t make sense of it, of course, but the federal government sells helium below market rates and then complains that the private sector isn’t producing enough helium to allow the government to stop selling its reserve. So, the program previously set to expire continues.

Solution: Congress should either require each congressperson to take a hit of helium gas before speaking on the floor of the chamber. Or sell the entire federal helium reserve to the highest bidder.

After getting maybe just one balloon for every kid 12 and under.     [further reading]

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