Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The impossible contradiction that is the Democratic president

It took almost a year, but we now are hearing the conservative critique of Obama that he "dithers," that he waffles, that he wavers, that he is not quite a real man because he does not show convictions. Of course, we've heard the "waffle" epithet thrown at other Democratic presidents, especially Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. And you don't have to be Democratic president to be called a dithering, waffling unmanly man. Just ask John Kerry.

What is remarkable about these charges is not that they are made: critics know we want a strong leader (that phrase is almost redundant). What is remarkable is that the charge is made at the same time as the opposite charge: that Obama (or fill in the name of a Democratic presidential candidate) is a megalomaniac bent on using the government to fulfill--you guessed it--his horrifying liberal convictions. In other words, Obama is a waffle with a fascist's mustache.

One of these may be true. He may be the waffle or the mustache. But not both.

To be fair, conservatives have had to deal with Republican presidents facing their own familiar from the Left: that they are stupid. Now they are even facing social scientists who try to prove it. George W. Bush faced this charge throughout his presidency, but so did Reagan. Republican vice presidents have faced it (remember Dan Quayle) and of course Republican vice presidential candidates (Sarah Palin). At the same time, liberals have painted Republican presidents, despite their supposed stupidity, as scheming to destroy all that is good. The threat is real enough to earn them the fascist mustache on protesters' placards. The contradiction here is slightly less pronounced, because liberals can point to a Rasputin-like team of advisers who tell the supposedly-dumb president what to do (that logic works less well for Republicans attacking a Democrat because the Democratic president would not waffle if they had an analogous team of scheming liberal advisers).

While there may be a grain of truth to these stereotypes (that Democratic presidents are more deliberate and Republican presidents more un-nuanced in their assessments of issues), the media are probably responding to what psychologists have identified as a kind of cognitive confirmation bias: we start with a meaning of a thing, and then we notice everything that conforms to that meaning, and ignore that which does not. We can hold only one meaning of a thing at a time (either waffler *or* liberal schemer), and bias our interpretations based on that.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Not Ready for Democracy

While the rest of the nation expressed shock at Republican Congressman Joe Wilson and his “You lie!” outburst at President Obama, South Carolinians doubtless recognized it for what it was: the latest in a long, distinguished history of not-ready-for-democracy political behavior.

In fact, Wilson has got nothing on his predecessor Preston Brooks. Brooks was also a Congressman from the great state of South Carolina. Like Wilson, Brooks let his emotions get the better of him. So much so that on May 22, 1856, Brooks approached Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, seated at his desk on the floor of the Senate, and beat him savagely with a cane. Sumner collapsed unconscious, but Brooks kept flailing away.

Several other Senators tried to help their colleague but were held at bay by Laurence Keitt, another South Carolina politician, who pulled a gun and threatened to shoot. This is why it is so important that people be allowed to carry firearms: to prevent good Samaritans from intervening when your friend wants to beat someone up. Keitt was censured by Congress, which is probably one reason the NRA was founded.

The reason Sumner deserved his beating, as far as the good folks from the Palmetto State were concerned, was that Sumner was an abolitionist and he went to Harvard.

Brooks was right about Sumner, which puts him one up on Wilson, who got it wrong about health care for illegal immigrant. Sumner wanted slavery ended and he pulled no rhetorical punches on the floor of the Senate, though as far as I know he never actually punched anyone. He really was a threat to slavery.

South Carolina was home to some of the biggest, nastiest slave plantations in the Old South, and South Carolinians so loved their slave system that they were the very first to secede from the Union. Edmund Ruffin, a transplant to South Carolina from Virginia claimed to have fired the first shot on Fort Sumter, precipitating the Civil War. He would have bragged about that to his South Carolina neighbors for the rest of his natural days but he shot himself in the head after the South lost the war.

The most beloved South Carolina politician of the more recent past was Strom Thurmond, segregationist, bigot and all-around standard-bearer for South Carolina. Among his many accomplishments, Thurmond holds the record for conducting the longest filibuster in Senate history. He went on and on for 24 hours and 18 minutes to oppose the Civil Rights Act of 1957. When Thurmond wasn’t busy defending segregation and opposing civil rights for African Americans, he found time to father a child with a black maid. And South Carolina voters so loved the original “Dixiecrat” that they elected him governor and then Senator eight times – 48 years.

Then, of course, there is Appalachian Trail-enthusiast Mark Sanford, the current governor. In a political landscape filled with narcissists and hypocrites Sanford has risen high above the crowd. Even in South Carolina’s illustrious political history, one is hard pressed to think of another politician who combines self-aggrandizing self-indulgence with a limitless sanctimoniousness in such generous portions. To announce to the world that his Argentine squeeze was his “soul-mate” (eeww!) but he was going to return to his wife anyway took a particularly kind of political courage.

So by comparison, Joe Wilson’s outburst seems pretty timid. Disappointing, really, by South Carolina standards. And Wilson got it wrong. His wimpy little yelp during the President’s health care speech has given analysts an excuse to point out how wrong he was. He should have caned an illegal immigrant instead.

Still, one wonders what it is about South Carolina that is seems to produce a disproportionate number of political socio-paths. And why do South Carolina voters keep elected them?

The only answer I can come up with is that Edmund Ruffin was right. South Carolinians don’t really want to be part of the United States, and they don’t have any use for the political rules and processes the rest of us pretty much agree to. Like civil rights, civil debate and keeping your soul-mates to yourself.

I suppose we should be happy that Hapless Joe Wilson didn’t get up to try to cane the President while Lindsay Graham fought off the Secret Service. But why don’t we finally give South Carolinians what they really want. Let them secede and form their own nation: The White People’s Republic of Upper Georgia, or some such.

Let’s wave farewell to South Carolina. Before some else gets caned.

Monday, September 7, 2009

What's in a Name?

Labor Day and summer is over. This means the real fights over health care reform begin in earnest. The Glenn Beck-sponsored nonsense of the last few weeks was merely cable TV filler during the slow summer weeks. Now things get serious.

So in anticipation of that, let me offer a small suggestion. Let's stop talking about "health care" reform. No one, in fact, is talking about reforming health care - the experience patients have with their doctors. The real issue is how we pay for our health care, not the care itself. So let's call this issue what it really is: "health insurance" reform.

Semantics to be sure, but debates are about language as much as they are about ideas and the semantics matter. Very few Americans actually want their "care" reformed - or put slightly differently, at a moment when houses are being foreclosed and jobs being lost, they are terrified by anything that sounds like it might interfere with their doctor's visit.

At the same time, few Americans care much about protecting the bloated profits of the health insurance industry. Most Americans want easier access, lower costs, and most, I suspect, would enjoy not having their legitimate claims routinely denied by their insurance carriers. These are the problems that need reforming, not what goes on in the doctor's exam room.

And as we have seen during those farcical "town meetings," talking about "health care" reform is too easily hijacked and is really only a distraction. Let's start talking about "health insurance" reform instead; let's force the Republican Rump to defend the health insurance industry to the nation. Let's make it easier and clearer for Americans to focus on the real issue here.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Not the Summer of Love

Summer 1993.

Team Clinton was trying to reform the nation's health care system and things were already starting to look grim. The forces of Gingrich darkness were gathering strength. Scary ads were running on TV.

Late that summer I joined roughly 500,000 fellow progressives on the Mall in DC for one of the largest demonstrations in American history. As Clintoncare was beginning its slow death, we marched in Washington to demand. . .that gays and lesbians be allowed to serve in the military.

One result of that demonstration was the heavily triangulated and patently absurd "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Another result was the defeat of health care reform. After 1994 health-care reform vanished from the national agenda until 2008.

Never mind how inept the Clinton people were in trying to reform health care, and how much blame they deserve. They got no help from people on the left, most of whom were still in the thrall of indentity based politics. For their part, the Gingrich crowd recognized that they could occupy with left with any number of battles in the culture wars. They were thus able to win the real fights of the decade without much opposition (like tanking the health care plan, for example). In 1993 what put progressives in the streets - forget the irony of it all - was gays in the military, not health care reform, welfare reform, or a host of other things.

I've been thinking about that demonstration as I've watched the "town hall" meetings on health care being hijacked by screaming loonies. I have no doubt (though I also have no real evidence) that these "spontaneous" expressions of grassroots anger at health-care reform are in fact carefully orchestrated recitations of Republican party talking points. It hardly matters one way or the other - at the moment, the Republican party has successfully framed the debate about health care and stolen most of the national headlines.

Part of this is the fault of the Obama administration which has not yet made the case for reform as effectively as it could or as it needs to. Part of the fault, however, lies with us. There has been no groundswell of support for health care reform to match the screamers at the recent town hall meetings. No one has yet organized a big march in Washington to demand that all Americans - gays and straights, wise Latinas and dumb white guys - have access to health care.

There is much to dislike about the current proposals to be sure, but that is beside the point. Some health care reform is vastly better than no health care reform, and not just for the health of the nation. Remember that in 1994, emboldened by their defeat of the Clinton health bill, the Gingrich lunatics took over Congress and turned it into their asylum.

The question this time around is whether progressives are prepared to march for health care, or whether Joe the Plumber and all his cousins will be allowed to defeat it again.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Time for Hearings

Hear that sound? something between a buzz and a whine? That's the sound of the finance industry lobby revving its engines (and mobilizing its membership) to kill the Obama administration's ambitious plan to overhaul how the industry is regulated.

This legislation has been flying under the proverbial radar to a certain extent because of the even more contentious battle over health care reform. While our health care system is certainly broken beyond the point of applying band-aids, it was not responsible for the economic mess we are now in (and will be in for some time). The banking/investment industry was, and bringing it to heel must be the centerpiece of an economic recovery.

It comes as no surprise that the banks and the hedge-funds would oppose any effort to regulate their behavior - though doing so requires them to deny that anything has gone wrong, that they bear any responsibility for what has happened, or that the Federal government has an obligation to protect the vast majority of Americans who aren't investors in hedge fund from their greed, dishonesty and down-right stupidity. Despite all this, they remain a powerful and effective lobby - especially with craven Congresspeople - and they have no counterweight on the Hill.

Which is why I think Congress needs to hold hearings on the financial collapse of 2008. Congress needs to investigate what happened and who was responsible for it, not so there can be indictments and trials and jail terms (though I would sorely love to see all of that). Rather, hearings are necessary to create a narrative through which the Treasury's plans for regulation can be understood by the public.

The banking industry has already framed the issue in a way which it feels will kill it: a few bad apples; don't stiffle financial innovation; regulation is unnecessary interference in the free market. The Obama administration, therefore, needs to offer a different frame: bankers and investment houses got fabulously rich at the expense of the rest of us; much of what they did was unethical; markets work best with clear and effective rules. Hearings are a way to establish that frame and to write that narrative. In other words, hearings may be the best way to generate the public anger necessary to overcome the influence of the banking lobby.

Instead, roughly 200 members of Congress have signed on to a petition (authored by -who else - Ron Paul) to create a congressional audit of the Federal Reserve. That may or may not be a fine idea, but the notion that the Fed is responsible for the Great Recession, rather than AIG, Countrywide, BoA etc, is patently absurd. Instead of directing its anger at the Fed, Congress needs to direct it those private sector players who are really to blame.

We won't get serious reform of the financial sector without public anger to support it. And if we don't get it, we can all look forward to more of the credit-default-swapping, mortgage-backed-securitizing, derivative-selling shenanigans that landed us where we are now.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

What Happened to 55?

Buried in the "Science" section of today's Times is a squib reporting a new study in the current American Journal of Public Health. The study looked at highway deaths since the repeal of the national 55mph speed limit and concluded that the "failed policy of increased speed limits" accounted for an estimated 12,500 unnecessary deaths over a ten-year period. This despite all the safetly improvements that have been made in cars which should have brought the death rate down. (No word, at least in this summary, on how many non-fatal injuries could be attributed to increased speed).

When Congress imposed 55mph on the nation in 1974, car crashes weren't its primary concern. Rather, Congress wanted us all to drive more slowly as a way of burning gasoline more efficiently. During that first energy crisis, with an OPEC oil embargo, rising gas prices etc, this seemed like an easy and sensible way to help ease our dependence on imported oil.

Repealing that speed limit, which began in 1987 and was complete by 1995, was a pure piece of Reaganite political symbolism. After all, Americans have a constitutional right to drive at 65 don't we? and a 55mph speed limit was an onerous regulation imposed by pointed-headed Democrats who wanted to deprive us of our freedom. I think the speed limit in the Soviet Union was 55mph wasn't it?

So, one new energy crisis and 12,500 additional deaths later, why aren't we talking about bringing back the 55mph speed limit? Even President Obama, who has more or less mandated that the American auto industry produce more fuel-efficient cars in the future, hasn't suggested we drive at 55mph to get better mileage in the cars we are already driving.

The reason, I think, is that higher speed limits not only burned more gas and killed more drivers, but it profoundly re-shaped the American landscape. During the decade or between the elimination of 55 and the collapse of the real estate market, exurban sprawl was a major driver of the American economy. Chester county, Pennsylvania, Delaware county, Ohio, Lake county Illinois, all on the far edges of metropolitan areas, grew at astonishing rates during those boom years, as did dozens of other exurban places.

To live out on the exurban frontier doesn't simply require a car - though it obviously does. The distances between home, work, school, shopping, city culture have become so attenuated that life requires a car driven at high speeds. In this sense, 65mph help make exurbia possible.

Conversely, lowering the speed limit back to 55 would increase the time exurbanites spend in their cars by over 15% (roughly), a significant amount given how much time they already spend there. Many Americans, therefore, simply cannot fathom driving any slower, regardless of how much money they might save at the pump, or how many lives they might save.

And herein lies the double-edged nature of more fuel efficient cars: on the one hand, there is no question that we ought to have cars that get better mileage. On the other, this will simply encourage people to drive more, and will provide an impetus to sprawl, which is also environmentally destructive. The answer to this dilemma, obviously, is fuel efficient cars driven through more densely-built towns and cities, and, needless to say, that is far easier said than done. The question, therefore, is whether the rising costs of exurban life in the coming years pressure people back toward the center, toward shorter drives, better access to mass transit, and even to places where walking and biking is possible.

There are plenty of ways policy might encourage that, but speed limits are certainly one place to start.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Lost in the Sunbelt: Notes from Southern California

Rather than the usual coherent essay-style posting, I'm presenting today just a few notes in easily digestible form about life in the fiscal disaster that is California.

1. Who would have thought that in a time of financial crisis, the faculty of the UC system would be looking with envy at our Rustbelt colleagues? We are in a fiscal crisis of unprecedented depth and severity, and every day or two we receive a new email telling us how bad it is or what new calamity awaits next week. And what of the flagship university in the state hit hardest by the financial crisis? The University of Michigan is in a state where at least one city, Michael Moore's hometown of Flint, is actually debating shrinking itself and giving back whole sections of the city to nature. And yet the University of Michigan is doing fine. I would like to blame our misery on Wall Street, but clearly, the system in California needs to be redesigned (either the ways we tax and spend in Sacramento or the way we finance the whole university enterprise or both) and perhaps the Rustbelt can give us a model.

2. Am I the only person who sees what seem to be obvious examples of unnecessary spending at the local level despite the crisis? Gilman Drive, the road I take to UC-San Diego when I drive, has for a decade been a bumpy, crumbling mess. But someone picked this year to pave it--beautifully, I might add. Smooth as satin. Recall that San Diego is a city that a few months ago considered closing several libraries, and has numerous other fiscal debacles to worry about. Is this all about "use it or lose it" funding rules for government institutions?

My hometown of Highland, IN closed its public library this year, but this fiscal juggernaut did it to renovate, not to save money. Perhaps this is a mini-version of the financially sound University of Michigan.

My pet peeve wasteful spending (I actually love the new Gilman Drive) is that the University of California still prints a campus phone book for every faculty member and office. Who uses phone books anymore? Everything has been on the web for more than a decade. I'm guessing the cost of those phone books would keep at least a few staff people employed for a year or more.

3. Unrelated: Is it time to rethink the political strategy of incrementalism, at least in the culture wars? I've always thought that progressive change on cultural and regulatory issues comes best from expanding on small victories. And so, for example, advocates for gay rights should focus on the simple things, like having the Civil Rights Act of 1964 amended to ban discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation. Small changes like this do not challenge deeply held beliefs (and yes, it's still legal to discriminate against gays and lesbians on the job).

In this view, the focus of gay rights advocates on the hot button issue of gay marriage is totally misguided. Why mobilize your enemies by going after marriage rights before employment nondiscrimination rights?

But perhaps this is wrong. Note that the year 2000's Prop 22 in California, creating a statute that defined marriage as between a man and a woman, passed with 61% of the vote. In 2008, the California Supreme Court struck down Prop 22. But the voters went and reversed, passing Prop 8, which amended the state constitution to define marriage as a union between a woman and a man. What is interesting here is that this time the idea only won over 52% of the voters.

The trend for gay rights in general is toward increasing acceptance. Was the mobilizing for the right to marry by advocates for gays and lesbians the best PR campaign ever run? Unlike so many public portrayals of gays and lesbians (who can forget the story in _The Onion_ reporting that the flamboyant antics of a gay pride parade set the movement back 50 years?), the struggle for the right to marry re-brands this group as just regular folks, no different from anyone else, on the central institution of family life. Even if the right to marry fails, it may actually make all of the other nondiscrimination rights easier.

4. If America is ever again going to see economic populism, now should be the time: the Wall Street firms we all just bailed out with our tax dollars are now posting record profits and will begin to reward themselves handsomely very soon with bonuses--while contributing no visible benefits to the country. My guess is that the financial crisis is more likely to generate an anti-immigrant backlash than anti-Wall Street populism. Perhaps it is time to re-read Michael Kazin's excellent book, The Populist Persuasion, and search for lessons.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Why Not "Government Motors?"

The Federal Government - that is to say, you and I - now own an astonishingly large piece of General Motors. In the long run, this may or may not prove to be a good deal for the public and the American auto industry. Of course, in the long run, as Keynes famously said, we're all dead, so who can say?

Still, critics of the government's role in GM's bankruptcy seem to take it as an article of faith that the government should not step in to take over a failing industry, like car production, because governments have no business operating in the private sector.

As GM's bankruptcy approached, I heard and read several versions of the story of the British car industry in the 1970s: collapsing of its own inefficiencies and ineptitudes, it was taken over by the Labor Government and consolidated into one, enormous entity. Which then failed even further, causing a huge loss of taxpayer money. Moral of story? Government should not dictate what private companies do.

The British story is certainly a cautionary tale, but at roughly the same moment much of the American railroad industry was also collapsing. It was taken over by the government and turned into Consolidated Rail. Conrail managed to stabilize the American freight railroad system, and modernize it to some extent. Indeed, Conrail was successful enough that it was broken up and sold back to the private sector (CSX, in particular, benefitted magnificently from Conrail's breakup, thus from the public investment in it). Conrail's story would seem to offer a different lesson for GM, though we've heard less about that.

Indeed, as many commentators have noted, GM's operations in emerging markets are doing better than its domestic operations. In China particularly GM is making and selling lots of cars. Of course, in China GM operates in a roughly 50-50 partnership with the government. It seems to work there.

I don't mean to argue that the government take over is either good or bad, though it was probably necessary and unavoidable. (The government may not be able to save GM, but it can hardly do any worse than GM's own management and board have already done.) But as we contemplate the changed economic landscape that will emerge after our current economic mess we need to dispense with the dogma that government ipso facto is incapable of partnering with industry. We need to stop genuflecting at the altar of the MBA as the source of all wisdom about our economy. We need to recognize that the private sector has public responsibilities and that government's job is to protect our interests and enforce those responsibilities.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Court that Looks Like Us?

It has been hysterical to watch the Republican Bund react, hysterically, to the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. Newt, Pat Buchanan, Bill O'Reilly, Rush, and not a few Republican Senators behind the scenes - all in a foaming lather over the prospect of a woman and a Hispanic. Or is it a Hispanic and a woman??!! Watch their eyes rotate in different directions.

There is another piece of Sotomayor's identity, however, that is apparently off-limits even to those who would de-rail her nomination at any cost: she was raised Catholic. If she is confirmed - and I certainly expect she will be - she will join Scalia, Alito, Thomas, Kennedy and Roberts as the 6th Catholic sitting on the bench. Should that trouble us? Should the question of religious affiliation be a matter of public scrutiny during nomination hearings?

Joyce Appleby, a distinguished professor of history at UCLA, has just written a brave op-ed piece for the History News Service, in which she says: yes. The whole piece is available at (full disclosure: I write pretty regularly for HNS), but let me quote from it here:

"In truth, religion is not a factor in the majority of decisions that the court will make each year. It might not be relevant at all had not the Catholic Church, with some other denominations, taken public stands on issues of great political significance today.

Abortion comes immediately to mind, but it's not the only constitutional matter where religion and politics clash. This past week two eminent lawyers, David Boies and Theodore Olson, filed a law suit in Federal District Court in San Francisco as co-counsel for two gay couples challenging California's Proposition 8. The California juarSupreme Court's upholding of the proposition's ban on same-sex marriages triggered the action, which seeks relief for gay couples under the Constitution's protection of equal rights.

The case could go all the way to the Supreme Court, raising questions about the vigorous opposition to same-sex marriages by the church to which five, and possibly six, justices will belong. The death penalty, which the Catholic Church also opposes, is another.

Recusal sounds like a radical measure, but we require judges to withdraw from deliberations whenever a personal interest is involved. Surely ingrained convictions exert more power on judgment than mere financial gain. Many will counter that views on abortion, same-sex marriage, and the death penalty are profound moral commitments, not political opinions. Yet who will argue that religious beliefs and the authority of the Catholic Church will have no bearing on the justices when presented with cases touching these powerful concerns?"

The Catholic Church in this country over the last generation, but particulary in the last 8 years, has injected itself more and more intrusively into our politics, precisely in areas like gay marriage and abortion. Should we be concerned that while less than 30% of American citizens come from Catholic backgrounds but soon 2/3rds of our Supreme Court justices do?

Sunday, May 31, 2009

More Dreams Deferred

Over the last decade or so, the courts have chipped away at affirmative action programs in a whole host of areas. The cases which have gotten the most attention have been those which involve college admissions. This is no surprise, since no country places a greater faith in the power of educational opportunity than this one.

Using race/ethnicity as one among several criteria for college admissions became a way of leveling the educational playing field for under-represented groups on campus. It acknowledged that certain groups of people faced steeper obstacles getting into college than others. The courts, however, began more and more to disagree with that rationale.

So ten years ago, officials in Texas came up with an interesting solution to the dilemma. They created a mechanism through which the top 10% of the graduating class from every Texas high school would, more or less, be guaranteed a spot in one of the state's Tier 1 institutions. Underneath this entirely race-blind quota system was the deeply unhappy truth that public education is so thoroughly segregated in Texas that the enrollment of minorities in those Tier 1 universities would go up dramatically.

And it did, and the Texas model seemed to offer a way of providing access to higher education while neatly skirting the increasingly sticky discussion of race and affirmative action.

Until now. The Times reports today that legislation pending in Austin will terminate the experiment. Surburban legislators have been furious that some of their (largely white and above-average income) constituents' kids are being denied entrance into Tier 1 schools in favor of poor kids (black, hispanic and white) from urban and rural districts. Now they apparently have enough votes to end the program. (In fairness, they are being aided in this by the colleges and universities involved who find the quota system restrictive to their own admission plans).

There are several obvious ironies to observe here, not the least of which is the spectacle of a nation telling poor kids to get ahead by getting an education and then refusing in every conceivable way to make that possible. But what struck me was that this news underscores the way suburban school districts were pitted against urban and rural ones. The same was true some years ago in Ohio when a collection of urban and rural districts sued the state, claiming the way schools were being funded was unconstitutional. (They won; but the state was firmly in the grip of Republicans and the legislature simply refused to address the court's ruling).

This is really myopic, since more and more we are recognizing the way metropolitan regions share interests and problems across the urban/suburban/rural divide. Questions like transportation, open-space preservation, food production, clean air and water, and economic development, transcend political and demographic boundaries, and the places that deal effectively with these issues will be those places that recognize that fact. In Texas, alas, suburbanites still don't seem to realize that the whole state has a vested interest in giving better educational access to all its kids.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Ol' College Try

President Obama deserves a great deal of credit for delivering the commencement address at Notre Dame, and Notre Dame deserves credit for inviting him. It is an example of the kind of civility that we have missed for the last eight years. (Full disclosure: my employer, Ohio State University, invited George Bush to commencement in June, 2002. After students and family filed into the stadium for the event, the stadium was put under lock-down and student protesters were arrested. Several spent up to 72 hours in jail for carrying signs or for turning their backs on Bush when he spoke).

The President addressed the issue that made his appearence controversial head-on: abortion rights. By drawing an analogy to the issue of civil rights in the 1950s, he suggested that people could find common ground on this thorny question.

On one level, the President simply acknowledged what has been true already in this country for about a generation. In survey after survey, a majority of Americans support access to abortion, though most favor certain kinds of restriction on that access. A majority of Americans, in other words, have already reached that common ground, though we haven't quite had the courage yet to admit this fully and out loud.

But at another level, of course, the President searched for a middle ground in vain. For those - and as it turns out there weren't really that many of them - who turned out to protest Obama's speech, abortion can only be discussed in absolutist terms. Any abortion under any circumstance ought to be criminalized. No quarter given; no half-way measures. We might dismiss these people as a small minority of zealots except for the fact that they exercise of outsized influence on our politics, and indeed, on the culture as a whole. The multi-millionaire founder of Dominos pizza, for example, has contributed heavily to anti-choice causes and the founder of Curves, the chain of women's gyms, posts on his website his desire to "destroy" Planned Parenthood.

This single-minded opposition to abortion masks other agendas, as many have pointed out. The issue, for some, isn't really about unborn children but about controlling women. The Catholic church, after all, is probably the world's largest institution predicated on the discrimination of women. For others, the fixation on fetuses is a proxy for an attack on sexuality more broadly. When the President suggested that we might find common ground by finding ways to reduce unwanted pregnancies, he did not mention Texas where high schoolers are only given abstinance education and which, surprise surprise, now has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the nation.

Right as those explanations surely are, behind them looms a particular christian theology that we need to understand. For fundamentalist Protestants and their Catholic allies, the important lesson of the Gospels did not come from the Sermon on the Mount, but from the events on Calvary. They aren't interested in messages of compassion, love, of lasts being first, but rather in the passion and the crucifixion. (Remember fundamentalist Catholic Mel Gibson's bizarre movie which some dubbed "The Jesus Chain Saw Massacre??) In this view of the world, suffering and pain are the only roads to redemption.

At its root, the fetish of the fetus isn't about the "sanctity of life" but rather about the importance of suffering. Carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term, therefore, offers an opportunity for that redemptive suffering. And since the goal of these fundamentalists is that we all be saved according to their formula, forcing women to have these babies makes perfect sense.

Perhaps a better way to understand the theology of anti-choice fundamentalism is remember the circus that erupted during the Terry Schiavo fiasco. The very same crowd the pickets in front of Planned Parenthood turned their energy and resources to keeping the vegetative Schiavo alive not despite the fact that she would never recover, but precisely because she never would. She suffered; her husband suffered; it was all good for them.

And if those protesters who greeted President Obama in South Bend have their way, we'd all suffer too.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Surge of Magical Thinking

Perhaps it is too early to declare the much-vaunted troop escalation in Iraq (dubbed by George Bush the peppier-sounding "surge" which has been dutifully parroted by the press) a failure. But that judgement is no more precipitous than the near-immediate declarations of "success!" made by virtually everyone.

The troop escalation has been called a success because it has been credited with bringing about a dramatic drop in violence in Iraq. Because of this, the troop escalation has been just about the last thing Bush loyalists and Iraq war cheerleaders can hang onto. They have so desperately wanted something here to work in what has otherwise been an abject failure that they almost immediately seized on the troop escalation, and its architect, David Petreaus. Chirpy Republican apologist David Brooks recently called the troop escalation Bush's signature success and one of the most courageous decisions made by any president.

We should acknowledge, however, that correlation is not necessarily causation - Iraq had descended into what should have been called a civil war; civil wars have their own gruesome dynamics and the decrease in violence may also correspond to the exhaustion of warring parties; and despite the troop escalation, Iraq remains one of the most violent, dangerous places in the world. And, of course, many of the warring parties in Iraq put down their weapons because the US Army paid them to - once the money stops, who knows what will happen?

The larger point is that reducing violence was never supposed to be the goal of the escalation. Getting the violence under control was a means to an end. It was supposed to create the space for the political process to work. And the results here, while perhaps not yet a failure, surely don't look like success.

In the past week, Prime Minister Maliki seems more and more like he is consolidating power in purely sectarian ways, shutting out other players, who, in turn, have access to fighters and weapons. And a new round of bombings have been deadly enough to land on the front page of the papers, rather than in the middle. Iraq, to judge by the news coming out of there right now, seems no closer to peace and stability than it was a year ago.

Many people have made the analogy between Iraq and Vietnam, and there are haunting similarities. But it has always seemed to me that the better, and even more horrifying, analogy is Cambodia. Once a prosperous and stable country - in the 1960s it was a net exporter of food - Cambodia was brought to ruin once the Richard Nixon and Henry Kissenger orchestrated secret (and illegal) bombings in their pursuit of North Vietnamese soldiers. Just as Iraq was turned into a proxy in the "war of terrorism," Cambodia was the collateral damage of our feckless Vietnam adventure.

Once American troops left Southeast Asia in 1975 Cambodia descended into a fratricidal civil war which ended with the triumph of the Khmer Rouge. Cambodians thus went from bombing raids, to civil war to genocide in just under a decade. It has not really recovered in the thirty years since (it still must import food each year, for example).

American troops must be withdrawn from Iraq. But as we prepare to pull them out, we ought to use the remaining time there to push for political solutions rather than simply congratulating ourselves on the "success" of the troop escalation. No one can envision where Iraq might be in 30 years, but then no one envisioned what became of Cambodia either. Perhaps we can learn something from that tragedy.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

"Experts Agree. . ."

"Ed Meese is a pig."

More than twenty years ago that pithy little phrase made its way onto buttons and t-shirts. A bicycle messenger in DC happened to be wearing such a shirt when he made a delivery to the Justice Department. He was promptly arrested. Such was the nature of the First Ammendment under Attorney General Edwin Meese.

You remember Ed Meese right? The pudgy, not-the-brightest-bulb-in-the-chandelier that Reagan made Attorney General? Long before Alberto Gonzalez stained the Justice Dept. Ed Meese served as a Reagan's friend and ally during the Iran-Contra scandal and subjected Justice Department employees to ideological litmus tests.

Meese's legacy has been much in evidence these past few weeks as the Obama Administration has released the torture memos. These memos have removed whatever doubt might have remained about the brutalities committed by the Bush Barbarians. We tortured. We did it repeatedly. We invented legal excuses to justify those act that makes the reasoning of the Spanish Inquisition look positively profound.

Perhaps Meese's most famous utterance (or maybe it's just the one I remember most bitterly) was his pronouncement that anyone arrested by the police is almost surely guilty. He had little patience for the notion that one is innocent until proven guilty. That was just liberal nonsense. The ethos embodied by Meese drove Americans into a get-tough-on-crime frenzy. Three strikes and you're out. Lock 'em up and throw away the key. After a generation of Meesian-style justice, the United States now leads the world in incarcerations.

Senator Jim Webb, for one, thinks it's time we re-examined our entire penal system. And increasing numbers of states are finding that they simply can't afford to pay for what many have called "the prison-industrial complex."

Those who still defend torture have essentially invoked Meese's principle. If you've been arrested and thrown into Guantanimo or some black site somewhere you are probably guilty of something. Or will be guilty of something in the future. So we can torture you. Phil Musser, for one, recently insisted that he walked through Guantanimo and could just tell these were guilty people.

The scandal of torture has specific roots in the Bush administration's key players and in their response to 9/11. But those roots grew in a cultural soil tilled by Ed Meese: the comtempt for due process, the impatience with things like habeus corpus, the presumption of guilt before innocence, the substitution of politics for the law.

For a generation now, the Meesian "you can't ever be tough enough on crime" position has been hugely successful politically. I suspect that as we now confront the fact that we tortured people, defenders of torture - like virtually all House republicans - will move from definitional squabbles and term-parsing (what we did wasn't really torture, it was something else) to embracing torture as perfectly justified, just like throwing people in jail for life for minor drug possession. After all, you can't be too tough on terrorists. Even if you torture them.


Kevin Boyle, one of the great historians of his generation (his book, Arc of Justice, won the National Book Award in 2004), is also a native Detroiter and a true Rustbelt Intellectual. He grew up on Chatsworth Street, on the city's East Side during the 1960s and 1970s, and witnessed the dramatic racial and economic transformations that left Detroit--and so many other cities like it--ravaged by disinvestment.

In this moving article, Boyle revisits his childhood neighborhood where today, you can buy a single-family detached house for about $5,000 more than what his parents paid nearly fifty years ago. Boyle offers a subtle reflection on the intersection between memory and history. It's one of the most powerful, personal meditations on urban change that I have read--and a rare one that evokes childhood memories without slipping into maudlin nostalgia.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


I've taken the liberty of reprinting this post from tax day last year.

This morning, I walked down to the corner, put my children onto their school bus, and then made a quick stop at the mailbox. In my hand were three envelopes containing checks to the Internal Revenue Service, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the city of Philadelphia. I don't want to sound hokey, but I feel a sense of pride every April 15. I am fulfilling one of the central responsibilties of citizenship. My checks will provide some of the funds to pay for my children's trip to school (part of the way on a road that is being rebuilt with federal funds). And more importantly, my modest tax payments will help other people's children, and their parents, and grandparents too.

For those of us who groan and moan that our tax dollars are being wasted, watch this classic scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Even if our tax dollars are sometimes wasted or misdirected, it’s time to talk about what our local, state, and federal governments are doing right. What has Uncle Sam ever done for us? Social Security. OK, but other than Social Security? Subsidized medical research...OK, but other than subsidized medical and scientific research and Social Security? Well we have the National Park system. Other than Social Security, medical research, and National Parks? Well you get the idea. I could go on.

It will forever bar me from running for political office to say this: We don’t pay enough. Our infrastructure is collapsing. Our schools, especially those in inner cities and declining Rustbelt towns, are struggling with budget cutbacks when they need more to recruit and retain teachers and serve some of the country’s most disadvantaged students. Our public transportation systems deliver a lot, especially given how underfunded they are, but for those of us who depend on regional rail and Amtrak, the consequences of funding cuts have been devastating. And, yes, the National Institute for Mental Health and the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes for Medicine underwrite a lot of critical research. But we’ve allowed too much of our scientific and medical agendas to be dictated by the private sector. And don’t get me going about what our taxes aren’t going to, including an inclusive health care system, better environmental and workplace safety regulation, and urban redevelopment.

It is a cliche to say that anti-tax sentiment as an essential part of the American political tradition. It is, but not in the way that we usually think. American Revolutionaries railed against “taxation without representation.” We pay a lot of attention to the first word, but not as much to the second two. The protestors who joined the Boston Tea Party didn’t throw the principle of taxation into Boston Harbor. They demanded more democracy, the freedom to determine the fair rates of taxation and the uses to which tax dollars would be put.

Berkeley historian Robin Einhorn has written a brilliant study of the origins of Americans’ aversion to high taxes. I recommend reading her book, American Taxation, American Slavery. Here are some of her insights:

Americans are right to think that our antitax and antigovernment attitudes have deep historical roots. Our mistake is to dig for them in Boston. We should be digging in Virginia and South Carolina rather than in Massachusetts or Pennsylvania, because the origins of these attitudes have more to do with the history of American slavery than the history of American freedom. They have more to do with protections for entrenched wealth than with promises of opportunity, and more to do with the demands of privileged elites than with the strivings of the common man. Instead of reflecting a heritage that valued liberty over all other concerns, they are part of the poisonous legacy we have inherited from the slaveholders who forged much of our political tradition.

America's anti-tax tradition, she argues, is one of slavery's many strange fruits.

[S]laveholders had different priorities than other people—and special reasons to be afraid of taxes. Slaveholders had little need for transportation improvements (since their land was often already on good transportation links such as rivers) and hardly any interest in an educated workforce (it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write because slaveholders thought education would help African Americans seize their freedom). Slaveholders wanted the military, not least to promote the westward expansion of slavery, and they also wanted local police forces ("slave patrols") to protect them against rebellious slaves. They wanted all manner of government action to protect slavery, while they tended to dismiss everything else as wasteful government spending.

Her sobering conclusion:

The irony is that the slaveholding elites of early American history have come down to us as the champions of liberty and democracy. In a political campaign whose audacity we can only admire, charismatic slaveholders persuaded many of their contemporaries—and then generations of historians looking back—that the elites who threatened American liberty in their era were the nonslaveholders! Today, this brand of politics looks eerily familiar. We have experience with political parties that attack "elites" in order to rally voters behind policies that benefit elites. This is what the slaveholders did in early American history, and they did it very well. Expansions of slavery became expansions of "liberty," constitutional limitations on democratic self-government became defenses of "equal rights," and the power of slaveholding elites became the power of the "common man." In the topsy-turvy political world we have inherited from the age of slavery, the power of the majority to decide how to tax became the power of an alien "government" to oppress "the people."

If we throw off the yoke of slavery, we might recover the lost promise of the Boston Tea Party: that taxation and liberty are fundamentally compatible.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

You Get What You Pay For: An April 15 Meditation

I don't know exactly when it happened, but at some point over the last generation or two Americans began to think of themselves less and less as "citizens" and more and more as "taxpayers." The implications of that subtle shift of identity have been enormous at all levels of government. In a nutshell, Americans have been persuaded that we pay too much in taxes; that taxes should always be reduced; and that government spending of our taxes is wasteful. A shrunken sense of shared obligation, an inflated sense of righteous entitlement.

The debate over taxes has been framed this way, and those on the liberal and left side of it have been reduced to saying, in effect, Americans don't really pay that much - not as compared to Western European countries for examples. It hasn't been a compelling argument.

But this is exactly the wrong way to think about taxes. We don't pay "too much" or "too little" in any absolute sense, of course, but only in relation to what we expect those taxes to do for us. In fact, Americans - especially those in the tax-cutting Red states - have made steadily more demands on the public purse even while insisting that they shouldn't have to pay for those things (see: the Federal balance of payments). If we want our roads paved, our police to show up when we call, our food safety monitored (and we do), then we have to fund those things. Americans consistently report that they want Cadillac schools for their kids, but they want them at Hyundai prices. The first rule of economics is: you get what you pay for.

Looked at this way, I do think we are paying too much in taxes - because what we get in return for them, more than anything else, is the Defense Dept. Since the end of WWII year in and year out roughly 50 cents out of every dollar of Federal discretionary spending goes to the Pentagon. Which means that the other 50 cents has to pay for everything else. And let's face it, most of us don't get that much for all that military spending - not better roads, not better schools, not better health care or cleaner air etc. etc.

The easiest (and I realize that it is anything but easy) way for us to pay for the ambitious programs this nation so desperately needs - from health care to public transportation - is to hack the Defense budget mercilessly. Shrink it to even twice the percentage of the British or the French and we'd be rolling in cash to pay for more useful things.

As it happens, I'm writing this from Washington, DC, a city whose cultural magnificence is available to me for free (thanks to taxes). I'm sitting in the glorious Main Reading room at the Library of Congress (more tax dollars at work) and thinking that we really can get great things for our society if we re-order the priorities of how we spend our taxes.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

State of the Ward

Academic life provides an almost bottomless reservoir of shenanigans of the sort that keep novelists from Vladimir Nabokov to David Lodge employed. Usually this stuff is interesting only to academics - for a while there was even a journal devoted to academic gossip, the short-lived, much-missed Lingua Franca. Occasionally, however, one of these stories breaks through to the national news. And this past week the Strange Career of Ward Churchill became such a case.

For those who have better things to do than follow the tawdry details of this episode, a quick recap: Ward Churchill, a professor of "ethnic studies" at the University of Colorado, was fired from his tenured position by a committee of faculty and administrators after they determined the he had engaged in a variety of academic frauds - plagiarism and dishonest scholarship among them, though there were also questions about the legitimacy of his academic degrees as well.

Churchill had labored in academic obscurity, publishing largely in the field of Native American studies, until he published an essay in which he called the victims of September 11 "little Eichmanns," asserting that they, and America generally, essentially got what what we all deserved.

That essay was merely stupid, and alas "dumb" is not necessarily a disqualifier in academia. But the essay was incendiary and circulated widely on the web. At that point the University of Colorado began to examine Prof. Churchill's record. What they found, as I mentioned, got him fired.

Churchill, in turn, sued the university in civil court claiming that he had been fired for that essay, and thus for exercising his first amendment rights. This week a jury agreed. And didn't. They found in favor of Churchill, but then awarded him damages of exactly $1.

Churchill, for his part, offered a remarkable defense: the university only discovered the academic fraud, he has basically insisted, because of that Sept 11 essay. No one would have noticed otherwise. Thus, he was being fired for having written it.

And the sad part is: he is largely right. Churchill apparently got tenure at Colorado without serious vetting - no one there seems to have paid much attention at all to this scholarly snake-oil salesman until some of his embarrassing writing briefly escaped the hot-house world of academia and appeared to a larger public.

There are only two conclusions I can draw from this silly bit of business from Boulder, neither of them good. Either the system for evaluating scholarship at the University of Colorado was so badly broken that faculty were too negligent to examine Churchill's publications with a critical eye. Or we have gotten to a point in humanities scholarship where claims to authority and truth can be made without any real rigor at all. Assertion substitutes for evidence; passion and feeling substitute for reason and argument.

If this latter is the case - an academic version of "I'm ok, you're ok" - then what the case of Ward Churchill reveals is a practice of the humanities that has lost any self-confidence. Believing that nothing can be known with any certainty, many in the humanities have decided that therefore all assertions must be equally valid and they need not be defended in any systematic way, because after all, that system is part of the problem in the first place. In such a world, Churchill's fabrications are no different than any other scholarship, which relies on real evidence and proper citation. Liberation through increased ignorance!

Scientists, of course, laugh at the humanities for this and other reasons. But our collective lack of self-confidence also explains why those of us in the humanities have had so little impact on the debates that have really mattered over the last 30 years. Playing post-structuralist parlor games, those in the humanities have largely ignored our responsibility to speak with authority and truth to the pressing questions of the day. We've been afraid to do so.

Ironically, the jury in Colorado deliberated just as the great historian John Hope Franklin passed away. It's a wonderful compare/contrast exercise: On the one hand, Franklin, a scholar of impeccible standards who devoted his life to the humanities in the fullest and richest sense, a man who repeatedly put his scholarship in the service of a political goal, but who always insisted on the difference between scholarship and politicis. On the other, Churchill demanding his job back because he was fired for being a fraud, and calling this a brave political act.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Does the Treasury Department need a Rustbelt Intellectual?

The demands of the new quarter require this post to be brief, but I wanted to highlight what I think are some interesting and important dilemmas faced by the Obama administration in the current economic crisis.   

Two main observations:  1)  America appears to be experiencing the first significant wave of economic populism in many decades; 2)  Obama's Treasury Department policymakers and staff of economic advisers appear to be unaware of this or to understand what it means (see Tom's post of February 10).  

A series of Frank Rich columns in the New York Times over the past several weeks brilliantly exposed this political blindness or insensitivity.  And the Times is still hammering home the basic point--a story from yesterday showed the troubling ties that Lawrence Summers (never known for his political acumen) has to hedge funds. 

Watching the political missteps leads me to believe that the Obama administration needs a Rustbelt Intellectual at Treasury or on the staff of economic advisers.  I use that term to refer to the spirit of this blog's many posts and reader comments--as a shorthand to mean only that the administration economic policy needs a voice from someone---anyone--who can truly empathize with the common American, with the working and middle classes.  

Yet the story on Summers indicates the difficulties that Obama faces in balancing politics and policy.  How can we reconcile the interests and concerns of the common American with the arcane world of 21st-century finance?  

Given the highly technical nature of our current financial crisis, does Obama have any other choice than to hand over the keys to the policymaking to folks who presided over and arguably contributed to the crash?  Would providing a seat at the table for a spokesperson for the middle and working classes simply put that person in over their head?  Are the concerns of working families hopelessly naive and likely to worsen the crisis if made a driving force in policy?  In other words, would a Rustbelt Intellectual just mess everything up?  

In the short term, it appears that handing economic policy over to technocrats is politically risky.  In the long term, it may be our only option:  Americans may just have to hold their noses and hope the Wall Street tycoons both in the Obama administration and on Wall Street can save the nation. 

Friday, April 3, 2009

Fear and Loathing at 30,000 feet

Recently I was stuck in airport purgatory, thanks to USAir's inability to keep track of its planes, its crews or its schedules (and I didn't even check any bags). So with unending amounts of time to kill, I spent much of it perusing the book sellers in two different airports.

Featured are several of the latest titles from the cast of Fox News and Friends: Hannity, Coulter and several others. They all have "books" out just at the moment (I'm reminded of a sneer that Gore Vidal, or was it Truman Capote, made toward another author's book: "That isn't writing; it's typing.") I didn't actually touch any other them for fear of getting some dreadful (anti)social disease. But the titles are revealing.

They all use the Manichean language of freedom and tyranny; liberty and war.

I'm not particularly interested in what these books say - all one needs to do is read is the title and you get the punchline - nor do I think most Americans care either. Ann Coulter, after all, has given dumb blondes a bad name. These are books which will be advertised as "best-sellers" and then sent straight to pulp.

Nor I am surprised about that language: Republicans for a generation now have been wrapping their looting of American society as super-patriotism or as god's work, or both.

What confuses is me is why we don't call this rhetorical posturing what it really is: American fascism.

Pretend for a moment that a far-right political party emerged in France or England. It claimed that the interest of the state and the interest of the party were identical; it insisted that any opposition to that party was a form of treason; it drew thinly-veiled racial distinctions between the "real" French and those others; it fulminated that those others were responsible for the decline of everything good and right. What would you call such a party?

Of course, you'd call it a fascist party, and we have seen exactly such politics in England with the National Front and in France with the Le Pen movement.

But the examples I've cited above all come from the last 15 years of the Republican party - from Sarah Palin's "Real Americans" speech to Newt Gingrich's 1995 declaration that Democrats were ipso facto traitors. And as we've seen since January, the notion of a loyal opposition has been perverted by Republicans to mean only opposition to Obama and loyalty only to the party.

So let's start calling these people what they are: American fascists. They appeal to a substantial percentage of the population for sure - I remind students that the closest we've come to electoral unity in a presidential election was 61% - which means 39% voted for the other guy (Alf Landon in 1936; Barry Goldwater in 1964). But we should at least be forthright about what we're now dealing with.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Steele's Choice

There he goes again. Michael Steele, who was supposed to be the GOP's Magic Negro, has put his foot back in his mouth with the social conservatives that constitute what remains of the Republican Party. In an interview with GQ he was quoted as saying that he believes abortion is "an individual choice." Cue the howls of protest from the drooling, knuckle-dragging mob.

Lest you are inclined to give Steele some credit for standing up on this particular issue, however, make sure you get the quote in its full context. What Steele went on to say was that this "individual choice" should be left up to the states.

Forget for moment the logic problem inherent in Steele's reasoning - hey, he wasn't hired because he's a deep thinker! Steele's comments are simply a re-tread of Ronald Reagan's, who argued that reproductive choice was a matter best handled by the states, not protected nationally by the Federal government. In that sense, while Steele may have offended the embryo fetishists, his comments put him squarely in the GOP's old-time misogynist tradition.

The conservative obsession with reproductive issues is part of the backlash against the feminist movement of the 1960s and '70s. It has nothing to do with the "sanctity of life" and all to do with regulating women. In no other matter of health does the state intrude as much as it does with questions of contraception and abortion - imagine that after being diagnosed with cancer, you were forced by the state to endure a 24 hour waiting period while you considered the potential bad side-effects of chemotherapy.

Imagine further that your chemo options varied wildly depending on which state you happened to live in when you were diagnosed. In some states you might be given access to the best treatments; in other states you might be told to drink herbal tea and pray a lot. So it has become with women's health.

Misogyny masked as federalism.

Over the course of American history "states rights" has been invoked largely to defend the oppression of the weak by the bigoted. Southern states defended slavery under the banner of "states rights" - and you will still hear some insist that the Confederacy was really about constitutional issues, not about keeping African Americans enslaved. "States rights" became the rallying cry of Southerners when they fought against desegregation and civil rights - no! they feigned, it isn't that we want to keep these people as second class citizens, we just want to defend the principle of states rights.

And in the last thirty years, "states rights" has become the excuse states have used to restrict basic medical treatments for women. Michael Steele may have infuriated the GOP base - and they are base indeed - but his comments in GQ suggest he's just as much of a misogynist as the rest of them.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Reid My Lips

I've just been hit up - again - for money from the Democratic Senate Campaign, or whatever it is they call themselves. This time the appeal came with a big picture of fat ol' Rush Limbaugh and told me how Rush was going to derail the Obama administration. It went on to tell me how important my contribution would be to get a 60 vote majority in the Senate in 2010.

I'm not giving a dime and not just because I want the Rush Limbaugh Follies to go on and on. Between Rush and Michael Steele the Wingnut Party just gets better and better. And after you've caught those acts, you can tune into the Bobby Jindal show! Too funny.

I'm not poney-ing up any money because right now the biggest obstacle to getting bills through the Senate is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. I complained about Reid some weeks ago in a post here and nothing that has happened since has given me any more confidence. Indeed, Reid's failure to get the votes in order for the big omnibus spending bill - a virtual no brainer - suggests that I was too kind about the Senator from the great state of Nevada.

Let's be clear: 60 votes are necessary to close off a filibuster. To date, Senate Republicans have only hinted that they might, perhaps maybe filibuster certain bills or nominees. They have, in fact, initiated exactly zero filibusters. Yet those threats have been enough to put Reid in a tizzy and driven Democratic operatives to dream about a filibuster-proof 60 votes.

The solution to the filibuster - and I'm certainly not the first or only person to say this - is for Reid to call the bluff. Give the minority party, the party of flat-earthers and Limbaugh-lovers, the opportunity to stall the business of the nation even as the economy goes down the drain. Poll numbers don't go as low as the Republicans would sink.

If he forced an actual showdown, Reid might discover A) that he gets the few votes he needs from Republicans like Arlen Specter, Jim Bunning and Olympia Snow who are terrified about their re-election or B) that the Republican threat is simply empty noise. Like everything else about the Republicans at the moment.

So until Reid gets his Senate in order, I'm not giving him any money.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


This op-ed, from Sunday's Detroit Free Press should be of interest to Rustbelt Intellectual readers.

Obama Must Rise to Urban Challenge
Thomas J. Sugrue

For the first time in three decades, we have a president who has pledged to put urban and metropolitan issues at the forefront of the national political agenda. Given the current economic crisis, and its devastating impact on metro Detroit, it's not a moment too soon.

For the past three decades, American urban policy has been a shambles. Beginning in the Reagan years, the federal government steadily cut spending on cities, while industry fled, infrastructure crumbled and populations grew poorer. Federal tax, housing and transit policies subsidized helter-skelter suburban growth, leading to the loss of farms, forests and wetlands, and to the rise of costly long-distance commuting. Meanwhile, cities were left to fend for themselves.

Without government support, cities turned to the private sector to address the most pressing urban problems. Urban development took two paths. One was splashy downtown revitalization geared to tourists, professionals, artists and well-to-do empty-nesters that gave downtowns a new lease on life. But the benefits of upscale development did not trickle down to the working-class majority of city dwellers. And the downtown bubble burst in cities from Las Vegas to Detroit, leaving an aftermath of vacancies and foreclosures.

The other path was forged by small-scale community development organizations, which grew out of the civil rights and black power battles of the 1960s and 1970s. With foundation grants and government support, they built affordable housing, community centers and, occasionally, stores. But overall, they did not transform the city. Community groups had the will but not the capacity to stem the massive urban disinvestment and depopulation.

Barack Obama -- the first president from a big city in more than a century -- comes to the White House with hands-on experience in urban issues. As a community organizer on Chicago's ravaged South Side, he saw the possibilities of community participation and empowerment, but the limitations of small-scale redevelopment.

As a budding politician, he attended fund-raisers in the city's gentrified North Side neighborhoods and worked closely with major downtown developers. And as a resident of one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the United States, he saw the corrosive effects of the balkanization of Chicagoland into two metros: one mostly white, with good schools and public services, the other mostly minority, with failing schools, a decaying infrastructure and rising taxes.

President Obama's first urban policy steps have been promising. He announced the creation of a White House Office of Urban Policy, a signal that cities will be a federal priority for the first time in decades. The nearly $800-billion fiscal stimulus package does not target cities specifically, but provides funding for school renovation and infrastructure improvements, public transit improvements and disadvantaged students and workers. The stimulus will certainly provide much needed jobs and help cash-strapped municipalities deal with years' worth of deferred maintenance.

And, though it has not been heralded as an urban program, the stimulus package's $3-billion appropriation for medical research will provide a lifeline for the research and teaching hospitals whose viability is essential to city economies. Detroit, like Obama's Chicago and nearly every other old industrial city, depends on its "meds and eds" -- that is, hospitals, universities and schools -- as an alternative to lost manufacturing jobs. They are the bulwark of today's urban economies.

But the success of the Obama administration's urban policy won't simply rest on its ability to solve the economic crisis. American cities and metropolitan areas are at a crossroads. Obama's urban policy has the potential to do much more than bail out cash-strapped municipalities. The new administration has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reinvent cities and metropolitan areas.

That will require thinking outside the box. Downtown redevelopment has a place -- but it cannot be the cornerstone of a new urban policy, unless it is directly tied to job creation. Community economic development is crucial, but it needs to be done on a much larger scale -- and must include building affordable housing where the jobs are -- in the suburbs.

And, most important, planning needs to be regional, not just local. So long as neighborhoods compete with downtowns, cities compete with suburbs, and suburbs compete with each other for scarce resources, our metropolitan areas will remain divided by class and race and be economically inefficient.

The federal government has the power to provide incentives for regional collaboration. President Obama has long talked about unity -- about transcending the divisions that separate Americans by race, religion and party. It is time to include our metropolitan areas in that vision of unity.

The current crisis is a metropolitan one -- and the solution will come in policies that are appropriate to the scope and scale of the economic and social problems that we all face together.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Kyoto On My Mind

The little town of Yellow Springs, out here in rural Ohio, is a pretty funky place and it is filled with some pretty progressive people. A friend of mine is expanding his small electronics company and doubling the size of his building. The addition is going to be so energy efficient that even with twice the square-footage, his energy bills will remain the same.

He is following some of the super-tight building designs that have been developed in Germany. And as he has worked on this project he has had to buy many of his materials - super-efficient windows, for example - from Canada. It's become a familiar story. Indeed, the Times ran a story today noting that roughly 70% of the wind turbines and solar cells in use in the US today are imported.

And as my Yellow Springs friend pointed out, this situation is the result of our refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocols.

Roughly a decade ago, the world came together to draft this international environmental treaty. The Clinton administration participated in the process and signed the document, but the Senate refused to ratify it. Under the Bush regime, needless to say, the treaty languished entirely.

The press largely covered the treaty's headline goals: targets for emissions reductions, carbon trading and so forth. Those targets were ridiculed for being unrealistic - and they probably are. The Senate and the Bush administration insisted that strict limits on emissions would kill the American economy and cost Americans jobs. Our economy burns fossil fuels, dammit, and putting less carbon in the atmosphere means less economic activity

But what politicians and the press failed to notice was that abiding by the protocols has been a stimulus to new industries, like making solar cells, and the high efficiency, triple-paned, solar-sensitive windows my friend now has to buy from Ottawa. So our refusal to ratify Kyoto resulted in the loss of future jobs. And that future has now arrived. Many of us are ready to embrace alternative energy in our homes and businesses, and at least at the moment, we will have to rely on imported technology to do it.

Over the last ten years, thanks to our inaction on Kyoto, European and Canadian companies have taken the lead in alternative-energy manufucturing while American manufacturers kept adding cup-holders to SUVs. Ten years ago, Americans laughed and sneered at the pie-in-the-sky-ism of Kyoto, but now that Canadian window company is having the last laugh.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Birthday Charles and Abe


This is cheating a bit. The following post is an op-ed that has appeared in several newspapers around the country, but on the occasion of the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln I thought I'd share it here. Think of it as a form of recycling. So on their birthdays lift a glass to the two great emancipators of the 19th century.

Abraham Lincoln, The Great Emancipator, has been much on our minds recently as Barack Obama moved into the White House. Exactly 200 years after Lincoln's birth, Obama's presidency is one fulfillment of the work Lincoln started.

Lincoln shares his birthday with Charles Darwin, the other Great Emancipator of the 19th century. Though in different ways, each liberated us from the traditions of the past.
Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were exact contemporaries. Both were born on February 12, 1809 -- Darwin into a comfortable family in Shropshire, England, Lincoln into humble circumstances on the American frontier.

They also came to international attention at virtually the same moment. Darwin published his epochal book, "On the Origin of Species," in 1859. The following year, Abraham Lincoln became the 16th president of the United States, and in that very year Harvard botanist Asa Gray wrote the first review of Darwin's book to appear in the United States.

They initiated twin revolutions: one brought by Lincoln -- the Civil War and the emancipation of roughly four million African American slaves; the other initiated by Darwin's explanation of the natural world through the mechanism of natural selection.

Lincoln's Civil War transformed the social, political and racial landscape in ways which continue to play out. Darwin transformed our understanding of biology, thus paving the way for countless advances in science, especially in medicine. With this powerful scientific explanation of the origins of species, Darwin dispensed with the pseudoscientific assertions of African American inferiority.

In this way, Darwin provided the scientific legitimacy for Lincoln's political and moral actions.
Both revolutions share a commitment to the same proposition: that all human beings are fundamentally equal. In this sense, both Lincoln and Darwin deserve credit for emancipating us from the political and intellectual rationales that justified slavery.

For Lincoln, this was a political principle and a moral imperative. He was deeply ambivalent about the institution of slavery. As the war began, Lincoln believed that saving the Union, not abolishing slavery, was the cause worth fighting for.

As the war ground gruesomely on, Lincoln began to see that ending slavery was the only way to save the Union without making a mockery of the nation's founding ideals. This is what he meant in his address at Gettysburg in 1863 when he promised that the war would bring "a new birth of freedom"; he was even more emphatic about it in his second inaugural address in 1865. Slavery could not be permitted to exist in a nation founded on the belief that we are all created equal.

For his part, Darwin was a deeply committed abolitionist from a family of deeply committed abolitionists. Exposed to slavery during his trip to South America, Darwin wrote, "It makes one's blood boil." He called abolishing slavery his "sacred cause." In some of his first notes about evolution he railed against the idea that slaves were somehow less than human beings.

For Darwin, our shared humanity was simply a biological fact. Whatever variations exist among the human species -- what we call "races" -- are simply the natural variations that occur within all species. Like it or not, in a Darwinian world we are all members of one human family. This truth lay at the center of Darwin's science and at the center of his abolitionism.

That understanding of human equality, arrived at from different directions and for different reasons, helps explain the opposition to the revolutions unleashed by Lincoln and Darwin, and why many Americans, alone in the developed world, continue to deny Darwinian science.

For their part, many white Southerners never accepted Lincoln's basic proposition about the political equality of black Americans. In the years after the Civil War and Reconstruction they set up the brutally baroque structures and rituals of segregation. All the elaborate laws, customs and violence of the segregated South served to deny the basic truth that all Americans are created equal. For their part, most Northerners didn't care all that much about the "southern problem."

No wonder, then, that many Americans simply rejected Darwin's insights out of hand. Slavery and segregation rested on the assumption that black Americans were not fully human. Yet Darwinian science put the lie to all that.

Lincoln insisted on equality as a political fact. Darwin demonstrated it as a biological fact. In their shared commitment to human equality these two Great Emancipators, each in their own realm, helped us to break free from the shackles of the past.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


President Obama swept into office three weeks ago with a swell of good will. And he spared not a minute in addressing the major issue of the day, the economic crisis. We now have a weak stimulus package, garnished with lavish tax cuts that will have little direct effect on the economy. The stimulus package also includes a shockingly generous and costly give-away to wealthy homeowners, a $15,000 tax credit for people who flip their houses. In the meantime the stimulus package has been shorn of funds for smart programs that provide jobs and improve infrastructure (and lift the financial burden of cash-strapped states and localities) like rebuilding schools.

Why? Because President Obama has a faith-based delusion that he can somehow overcome the partisan divide and, in the process, heal America. Obama's belief in unity makes sense when it comes to the divisions of race, religion, and ethnicity. But it makes no sense when it comes to partisan politics. Bringing together Democrats and Republicans in a Kumbaya moment isn't going to happen. Invitations to the White House aren't going to soften Republican resolve. A few cookies won't do the trick. Only hard ball politics will.

And now we have Part II of the Bush administration's bank bailout, which James Galbraith has aptly named BARF--the Bad Assets Relief Fund. Give the banks bags of taxpayer dollars but with few strings attached. This too is the result of a failure of leadership. President Obama has surrounded himself with neoliberal economists, beginning with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who are steeped in the very culture of the big banks that they are now bailing out. Read this, from today's New York Times:

As intended largely by Geithner, the plan stops short of intruding too significantly into bankers' affairs even as they come onto the public dole.

The $500,000 pay cap for executives at companies receiving assistance, for instance, applies only to very senior executives. Some officials argued for caps that applied to every employee at institutions that received taxpayer money.

Abandoning any pretense about limiting the moral hazards at companies that made foolhardy investments, the plan also will not require shareholders of companies receiving significant assistance to lose most or all of their investment.

In other words, ask not what you can do for your country, but what your country can do for you. This is not change that we can believe in.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Dr. No(hio)

In 2004 the state of Ohio disgraced itself by voting for Bush, thus giving Bush the election. In November, 2008 Ohio voters redeemed themselves, and I didn't have to field angry phone calls from all my friends who blamed me for the results like I did in '04.

But this week we were all reminded that the Axis of Republican Evil still runs straight through the Buckeye State - more specifically through its 8th Congressional district. This week we got to see John Boehner in full.

Boehner certainly looks the part of the polyester politician - I'm not sure I could tell him apart from Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee. But he demonstrated this week that his well and truly the ringmaster of the Republican House circus and that he will have those clowns goosestepping in unison in a way that would make John Cleese proud.

As an Ohio voter, I decided to call the Congressman's office before the vote on the stimulus package. I spoke to a very polite young man, who was clearly weary of fielding calls like mine but whose politeness never wavered. I wanted to know what Congressional Republicans, with Boehner at their head, were offering as an alternative to the stimulus package. I wanted to know just exactly how yet more tax cuts would pay for the estimated $2.2 trillion necessary to rebuild our failing infrastructure.

Young Staffer had no answers for me but assured me that they were all there at Boehner's website. That's when my day brightened.

The first giggle came when I discovered that Boehner's website is called "Republican Leader." Just made me laugh that this puffed up buffoon now calls himself "Republican Leader." Try saying it a deep, James Earl Jones voice and looking at his picture. Then I cracked up when I saw the ominous banner "Economists Agree: We Can't Borrow and Spend Our Way Out of Recession." Boehner should know - after all, he was one of those Republican Leaders (deep voice) who borrowed and spent our way into this recession.

I must admit to disappointment after that. Young Staffer led me to believe I would find Republican solutions to our economic mess. Like public prayer for more jobs. Or intelligently designed public works spending. But no, all Republican Leader has to offer is: tax cuts.

But I encourage all of you to call the office - the staff really are friendly. 202-225-6205.


Whatever utility the rhetoric of bipartisanship had for Barack Obama during the campaign, it's now time for the president and the Democratic leadership to let it go. As political historian Allen Lichtman argued at TPM last week, the most effective presidents "don't move to the middle; they move the middle to them."

The GOP unequivocally rejected bipartisanship, when yesterday not a single House Republican voted for the economic stimulus package. And this was a package that the Democrats weakened considerably--by incorporating tax giveaways in capitulation to GOP demands. Republicans have chiseled away at other elements of the stimulus package such as Medicaid funding for family planning. All but the most conservative economists concur that the economic benefits of tax cuts will be minor compared to the jolt of increased spending on public works, unemployment benefits, health care, and public transit. But for Republicans, the efficacy of tax cuts--just like the evil and wastefulness of family planning--are a matter of faith.

Some argue that Obama's bipartisanship gives him the moral high ground: he looks statesmanlike, while the GOP appears truculent and uncompromising. Maybe, but does impression management matter in this moment of grave economic crisis? Why concede to the Republicans on what will arguably be the most important legislation of the Obama years? And why continue to give life to the failed Republican tax policies that have contributed mightily to the current crisis?

Others contend that bipartisanship will help Obama and the Democratic leadership shepherd the stimulus package through the Senate. It is true that to have a filibuster-proof majority, Obama needs to win a few moderate Republicans to his side, but squandering one third of the stimulus to appease the right seems a very high price to pay to win over Olympia Snowe and a few others.

The stimulus package, even in its weakened form, is a step in the right direction. But it may well prove to be too small. If it fails to turn the economic tides, pandering to the GOP in the name of a bipartisanship will be a large part of the reason.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

One Size Fits All Economics

Remember when people called the Republican Party "the party of ideas"?! It never was, really, (list 5 important "ideas" the Republicans have generated in since 1995 when Newt Gingrich, the "big thinker" took over - go ahead, I dare you) but through much of the last 10 or 15 years it was a great marketing slogan. Branding, I think they call it.

Still, it is stunning that in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression that the Congressional Republicans have only one thing to say. Like that weird section of the Beatles' "Revolution #9" which just keeps repeating "#9," Republicans keep whining: tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts.

This isn't only a measure of the complete poverty of ideas that the Republican Bund suffers, though it certainly is that. Instead, it is an honest reminder of what economic policy means for Republicans. Most of us, I suspect, think of economic policy as a way to pursue the common good - we might debate what that means and how best to achieve it, but we probably agree that economic policy should be shaped to foster those goals.

The goal for Republicans since 1981 has been single-minded: transfer money from the middle class to the rich. Contrary to what you hear from the Cato Institute and other right-wing assisted living centers, Republicans aren't interested in small government, or even free markets. Not when big government and manipulated markets have proven so much more effective at shifting wealth to the top.

And the fastest, easiest, most politically successful way to do that is through tax cuts of the sort that Reagan and Bush II enacted. (That so many Joe-the-Plumbers, who would have done better personally under Democratic tax plans, went along for the ride measures poverty of a different sort).

Go back to those bygone days of 2000. Remember the balanced budget? Remember the budget surplus? As a candidate, Bush sold his big "soak the middle class" tax cuts as a moral imperative: the government shouldn't keep a budget surplus - we had to give it back! As president, when the dot com bubble burst and the nation slipped into the first Bush recession, he announced that those very same tax cuts were the only thing that would stimulate the economy.

So no matter what the economic climate, no matter what the social problem, tax cuts are the solution to everything. Don't have health care? How about a tax cut! Schools are failing - cut taxes! Got male-pattern baldness - you need a tax cut!

In fairness, Republican tax cuts have been successful at making the rich richer. But speaking about the Great Depression - which resulted from Republican economic policies that look awfully familiar - Roosevelt was right in 1936 when he called Republicans "economic royalists." The only question worth asking, as Bob Herbert did in his Times column yesterday, is: why should we bother listening to Republicans who can only say #9, #9, #9, #9. . .

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Three years ago, the Onion ran a perversely funny story, "Detroit Sold for Scrap." Now farce has become tragedy.

Last year, I visited the site of Detroit's long-abandoned and much picked over Packard Plant with a film crew from Britain. A half block away was a roving maintenance crew from Detroit Edison, replacing a hundred feet of power lines that had been stolen the night before by scavengers.

It's a sign of the times that scrap metal theft (even through metal prices have fallen in recent months) has become a boom business in inner cities. For a time here in Philadelphia, enterprising recyclers began stealing manhole covers--hundreds of them in a few months. Detroit, once the Motor City, is quickly becoming the Scrap Metal City. Everything is ripe for the plundering in a place with a record number of abandoned houses, skyrocketing unemployment, widespread poverty, and a thriving drug trade.

The metal theft business is not simply an urban problem. Like so many other social problems, it's rapidly suburbanizing. In 2008 alone, there were 145,000 foreclosures in Michigan, many in Detroit's suburbs. Thousands more houses are vacant, unsold in the bleak real estate market. Leftover suburban houses are a treasure chest of steel, copper, and aluminum. Air conditioners, gutters, doors, wiring, and plumbing fixtures are disappearing.

Chris McCarus, a Lansing-based journalist, recently ran an excellent three-part series on copper theft on his radio program Michigan Now. The epidemic of copper theft is a vivid example of the everyday devastation wrought by the current economic crisis.