Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Why Government Matters

Update: Red Cross--Donate to aid relief efforts

I'm having trouble thinking about, much less reading, what's going on in New Orleans right now. The pictures--aerial shots of multi-story buildings mostly submerged--seem unreal, doctored, a trick of editing like a photo-surrealism calendar someone once gave me. My mind shies away from thinking about what the death count ultimately will be; I think about those thousands left in the Superdome--mostly non-white, pretty much all poor--with a deep sense of shame.

But the human tragedy, the fundamental disaster that has befallen that community, is just one of the stories here. Another is why it's important to vote, to speak out, to make sure that public stewardship is in the hands of those who will use it responsibly. This New Orleans disaster didn't have to be as bad as it is; the two levees that broke tonight evidently went unfinished.

They weren't finished, in part, because the public funds that were to go toward finishing them were diverted to the Iraq war effort. The Philadelphia Daily News blog Attytood has the details:

New Orleans had long known it was highly vulnerable to flooding and a direct hit from a hurricane. In fact, the federal government has been working with state and local officials in the region since the late 1960s on major hurricane and flood relief efforts. When flooding from a massive rainstorm in May 1995 killed six people, Congress authorized the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, or SELA.

Over the next 10 years, the Army Corps of Engineers, tasked with carrying out SELA, spent $430 million on shoring up levees and building pumping stations, with $50 million in local aid. But at least $250 million in crucial projects remained, even as hurricane activity in the Atlantic Basin increased dramatically and the levees surrounding New Orleans continued to subside.

Yet after 2003, the flow of federal dollars toward SELA dropped to a trickle. The Corps never tried to hide the fact that the spending pressures of the war in Iraq, as well as homeland security -- coming at the same time as federal tax cuts -- was the reason for the strain. At least nine articles in the Times-Picayune from 2004 and 2005 specifically cite the cost of Iraq as a reason for the lack of hurricane- and flood-control dollars.

The specifics are extraordinarily damning. After last year's hurricane season, New Orleans officials well understood the danger they were facing and wanted to speed up the work of SELA. But the money, and the commitment, simply wasn't there.

The 2004 hurricane season, as you probably recall, was the worst in decades. In spite of that, the federal government came back this spring with the steepest reduction in hurricane- and flood-control funding for New Orleans in history. Because of the proposed cuts, the Corps office there imposed a hiring freeze. Officials said that money targeted for the SELA project -- $10.4 million, down from $36.5 million -- was not enough to start any new jobs. According to New Orleans CityBusiness this June 5:

The district has identified $35 million in projects to build and improve levees, floodwalls and pumping stations in St. Bernard, Orleans, Jefferson and St. Charles parishes. Those projects are included in a Corps line item called Lake Pontchartrain, where funding is scheduled to be cut from $5.7 million this year to $2.9 million in 2006. Naomi said it's enough to pay salaries but little else.

"We'll do some design work. We'll design the contracts and get them ready to go if we get the money. But we don't have the money to put the work in the field, and that's the problem," Naomi said.

There was, at the same time, a growing recognition that more research was needed to see what New Orleans must do to protect itself from a Category 4 or 5 hurricane. But once again, the money was not there. As the Times-Picayune reported last Sept. 22:

That second study would take about four years to complete and would cost about $4 million, said Army Corps of Engineers project manager Al Naomi. About $300,000 in federal money was proposed for the 2005 fiscal-year budget, and the state had agreed to match that amount.

But the cost of the Iraq war forced the Bush administration to order the New Orleans district office not to begin any new studies, and the 2005 budget no longer includes the needed money, he said.

The Senate was seeking to restore some of the SELA funding cuts for 2006. But now it's too late. One project that a contractor had been racing to finish this summer was a bridge and levee job right at the 17th Street Canal, site of the main breach.

What self-proclaimed "small government conservatives" always fail to understand is that THERE IS NO OTHER WAY TO DO THESE SORTS OF THINGS than government action. Projects like this are the whole fucking reason we *have* government: to protect lives and property. And not only should they get top priority, their successful completion really depends upon those in charge fully understanding that this has to be the priority.

Instead, we have a bunch of armchair war fetishists and crony capitalists who generally have never faced disaster at the hands of impersonal forces--whether natural, like the hurricane, or systemic, like job loss caused by macroeconomic change. Their lack of foresight, their lack of care, their lack of felt responsibility shouldn't surprise us. But it should make us reconsider just what it is we look for in leadership, and remember what a sacred trust it is.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Department of Self-Promotion
My NFC East preview package is now online at nfl.com. The frustrating thing about doing these is that events can always render considered prognostication almost immediately obsolete: if Eli Manning's elbow is really damaged, the Giants are probably closer to 5-11 than the 8-8 I foresee for them. Hopefully the football gods won't conspire to make me look like a total idiot.

If you don't feel like reading through, here's my predicted order of finish: Eagles, Cowboys, Giants, Redskins. Assuming Manning's okay, Cowboys/Giants might actually be a tossup: Dallas could struggle switching to the 3-4 defense, and I think Drew Bledsoe will get to know the Texas Stadium sod more intimately than he'd probably like.

Hopefully I'll be writing a few more columns for nfl.com over the course of the football season. I'm obviously going to need something to keep my attention through the pending Battlestar Galactica hiatus.

For the more serious-minded, here's a link to the Mayoral Policybook the Center for an Urban Future put together in partnership with the Center for NYC Affairs at The New School and Regional Plan Association. I edited this, and wrote chunks of the Intro and workforce development sections. It's pretty hefty stuff, and hopefully will offer some substance in a mayoral campaign that, like the quintessentially New York show "Seinfeld," so far seems to be largely about nothing.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Better Luck Next Time?
It might seem strange to be thinking about February 2008 while in the midst of a sweltering August 2005, but that's what Democratic speechwriter/pundit Kenneth Baer is doing in this New Republic article on changes to the party's nominating process. A party commission, co-chaired by former Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman and Congressman David Price, is meeting with groups around the country to consider alterations to the timetable, sequencing and guidelines for the nomination race.

As usual, the biggest focus is on whether Iowa and New Hampshire should maintain their all-but-decisive importance in the contest. Critics charge, justifiably, that "[t]hese states don't have enough minorities; they lack a large concentration of union members; they are without a major city." But despite their evident lack of general-election predictive power (in 2000, George W. Bush lost the New Hampshire primary, but won the state over Al Gore that November; last year, John Kerry memorably won Iowa but lost it, narrowly, to Bush in the general election) and the significant differences between small-state and national voters, Iowa and New Hampshire are almost determinative as far as who gets the nod. You have to go back to 1992, when home-state/region favorites Tom Harkin and Paul Tsongas won Iowa and New Hampshire respectively, to find a nominee of either party who didn't win in those first two states.

Baer makes a strong case against the argument that the "retail politics" candidates must practice in Iowa and New Hampshire serves as some kind of proving ground:

Conventional wisdom, which like a good student of American politics I once faithfully subscribed to, has held that the longer nominating process the better, as it allows a candidate to meet more voters, emerge to challenge an established favorite, and be vetted over a long and perhaps bruising process. Think Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Gary Hart in 1984. But in the past 20 years the ways in which campaigns are funded, run, and covered by the media have changed to such a degree that the extended primary season of today is now as out of date as the smoke-filled rooms of the '40s and '50s.

The current president offers perhaps the best example of this paradigm shift. When Granite State voters had months of close-up exposure to George W. Bush in 1999 and 2000, it clearly didn't do the Texas governor much good: John McCain, a master of retail campaigning who enjoyed the up-close contact and back-and-forth with voters as obviously as the super-scripted Bush detested it, won a resounding 19-point victory. Bush reversed his fortunes in the race before the next primary in South Carolina, burying McCain under an avalanche of money and slander; the media never really punished him for his clear deficiencies in "connecting with the voters" on issues of substance.

Thus for Iowa and New Hampshire. Baer goes on to make a positive case for what the Price-Herman Commission should do: further front-load the process, in effect using the primary contest as a dress rehearsal for November.

[W]hat the Commission and DNC do have power over is the "window," the time in which states must select their delegates to the nominating convention. And by closing the window earlier and opening it later--that is, shortening the nominating season from four months to one, and moving it later in the year from early February to the middle of March--the DNC can create a nominating system that increases rank-and-file participation and produces a candidate and campaign team that has been tested in conditions most resembling the general election.

By compacting the calendar into a four-week window in March, press coverage and voter interest would intensify--and not just in Iowa and New Hampshire. Candidates would have more of an incentive to campaign--not just fundraise--in voter-rich states such as New York, New Jersey, Florida, and California. In addition, they would have a huge incentive to begin using new ways to reach voters--such as niche cable stations like Outdoor Life Network or Bravo, ethnic media such as Univision, the Internet, and peer-to-peer organizing--which, as seen in the 2004 general election, Democrats have yet to master.

By approximating the pace and scope of a general election campaign, a month-long sprint of primaries would be a much more effective dry run for a candidate and his staff--weeding out the candidates and consultants who lack the imagination and appeal to reach beyond core Democratic constituencies in select states. Of course, any candidate who made it to the starting line would have already passed a high bar--the scrutiny not of the "boys on the bus," but the bloggers on bandwidth. The invisible primary is hardly invisible; it is, in fact, when most campaigning takes place. And with a 24-hour political press, along with hundreds of political bloggers, the scrutiny during this period in 2008 will be as intense as any month during the old system. A longer "official" primary system is unnecessary.

There's something about this move that might not sit well with Democratic primary voters. The appeal of small-group conversations with concerned citizens, dozens and dozens of "Town Hall" meetings and house parties in which contenders painstakingly build credibility in tiny New England hamlets and corn-belt towns, is real and in a sense legitimate. But if Democrats are going to craft a process that gives their nominee the best real chance to win the White House, maybe it's time we stop considering politics as we'd like it to be, and start thinking about it as is.

Monday, August 15, 2005

It Takes a Weirdo
I don't know if this is for real (I'm thinking not), but I can report that in the not quite four years I've known my wife, I've never seen her this excited about anything. Iowa, here we come!

Meanwhile, in the realm of "this should be a bad joke, but is all too sadly real," the theocrats convened again in Tennessee yesterday. Ed Kilgore at New Donkey drops the hammer (no pun intended) on this foul bunch of hypocrites and seekers after power, who show their true "moral values" by celebrating Tom DeLay, and are as unprincipled as the basest Tammany ward heeler:

[A]side from all the paranoiac (and very un-Christ-like) whining, the big underlying message from Nashville was that reshaping the Supreme Court is necessary to stop the alleged baby-killing, sodomizing, and paganizing that characterizes contemporary America. And there is zero, zero doubt that each and every one of the speakers at Justice Sunday II would completely reverse themselves on every issue related to the Constitution, activist judges, and all the other stuff they blathered about, if the shoe was on the other foot and the judiciary was promoting their own ideology.

Suppose, as a thought experiment, that a future Supreme Court embraced the implicit interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause embedded in the Human Life Amendment (still supported in the last Republican platform): that unborn children are endowed with all the rights and privileges of citizenship. Was there a single speaker in Nashville who would not hail such a decision as vindication of a Higher Law that binds all people and all times? I think not.

In all their talk about legislative and democratic prereogatives, and the horrific arrogance of unelected judges, the Justice Sunday crowd is painfully reminiscent of the southern segregations who relied for many decades on Supreme Court decisions like Plessy v. Ferguson (the infamous "separate but equal" validation of Jim Crow), and then suddenly re-discovered a populist hostility to the federal judiciary the moment the constitutional winds started blowing in a different direction.
I don't accuse today's Cultural Right of a unique political heresy, but I do accuse them of a great and notable streak of dishonesty. They don't give a damn about any of the constitutional and procedural issues they talked about in Nashville; they care about a particular policy outcome. They want to criminalize abortion, criminalize homosexual behavior, and sanction public displays of particular religious traditions. They will pursue those policies through any means available, and they ought to be pushed to the wall to admit it.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Why Grover Can't Govern
There's a sense in which it's hard to blame people for voting Republican. In effect, irresponsible candidates tell voters that "it's your money," and promise to cut taxes without imposing any pain as far as reductions in government services. Granted, you'd think that this has all happened enough times for a "fool me once, shame on you; fool me (many times), shame on me" to have taken hold... but the idea of paying less in taxes while getting more in services certainly has its appeal.

Except that when you have to balance budgets, as many governors and local officials do, the free ride can't last. And the battle between ideologues and public officials eventually is joined:

There are circles in which the ultimate Colorado icon is neither Snowmass Mountain nor Coors beer, but a set of fiscal handcuffs called the Taxpayers' Bill of Rights.

That constitutional cap on state and local spending, imposed in 1992, has been so effective in curbing government growth that tax opponents are making it the centerpiece of a national campaign. Similar measures are headed for the ballot this fall in California and perhaps Ohio, and parallel efforts are under way in more than a dozen other states.

For some, the long-term targets include Washington, where many on the right are troubled by the rivers of red ink that have continued to flow despite Republican rule. "It's the ultimate goal of what we're trying to do," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. "We want constitutional limits on the size of government."

But even as the Colorado measure galvanizes antispending groups elsewhere, it is dividing them at home, prompting a right-on-right fight that is luring outside combatants and drawing blood.

On one side is Gov. Bill Owens, the two-term Republican once promoted by National Review as a conservative of presidential timber. Arguing that the strict provision has forced a fiscal crisis, Mr. Owens is championing a ballot measure that would suspend the limit for five years, allowing the state to spend an additional $3.7 billion. Otherwise, he warns, the cap may be repealed.

On the other side are former allies who call the governor a tax-raising apostate discrediting the law he claims to protect. In addition to Mr. Norquist, they include the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal and the former House majority leader, Dick Armey, a leader of an antitax group called FreedomWorks.
The stricter Colorado cap does three things: it imposes firm spending caps (which grow only to reflect population and inflation), returns any excess revenues to taxpayers and allows only voters, not legislators, to override the caps.

Both sides agree that the measure reined in the budget. The growth in per capita spending fell to 31 percent in the decade after the cap from 72 percent in the decade before, according to the Independence Institute, a Colorado group that favors it.

Supporters say the cap ignited the subsequent economic boom, with low taxes luring businesses. They also say it kept the state from overspending when flush only to face painful cuts later. "Tabor saved Colorado's fiscal fanny," said Jon Caldara, the institute's president.

But the Bell Policy Center in Denver, an opponent of the law, found sharp reductions in immunizations, mental health services and inspections of day care centers, along with an increase in substandard roads and uninsured children. The center also blamed the cap for reducing access to higher education. "We're taking away the opportunity for people to better their lives," said Wade Buchanan, the center's president.

The Bell Center was the Colorado grantee for the Working Poor Families Project, as the Center for an Urban Future was in New York. They released their report before we did, and much of it focused on the damage TABOR had wreaked on state policies in fields like education and childcare. A state of haves and have-nots, Colorado was at risk of pulling up many of its ladders to self-sufficiency.

I can't remember if the report named Grover Norquist as the intellectual godfather of TABOR, but I'm certainly not surprised that he's taken center stage in this debate. The fact that he's willing to sacrifice Bill Owens, a strong Republican presidential contender before this dustup, shows just how deep he and the activists have gotten. Again and again, when Republican ideologues make it into executive authority they find that the Norquistian solutions--ever-smaller taxation and ever-smaller government--lead to both bad policy and bad politics.

Norquist has never faced a voter, has never had to deal with the difficulties of balancing a budget much less meeting public demand for services in an increasingly complex world. He offers no solutions to the dilemmas that Owens, or Rick Perry in Texas, or Mitch Daniels in Indiana have to deal with--he just calls them names when they don't go his way.

Actually, that's not entirely fair. He does offer a solution: cut services. As he's said many times, Grover's whole goal is to shrink government to the size where one can "drown it in a bathtub". That's what TABOR has forced Colorado officials to do.

But while most voters dislike government in theory, they love it in practice. Much of the south and southwest--the seat of Republican electoral dominance these last 25 years--was built with public investment during the Cold War decades. And even most Republicans don't seem eager to dismantle the social safety net, much less de-fund public schools or do any of the other things on Norquist's wish list. Bill Owens, caught between the ideology and the demands of office, has backed away from

Supply-side dogma is a fundamentally unserious way to go about the public's business. But it makes good politics. Norquist is a great organizer and a great propagandist; it's to the deep misfortune of the country that he puts these skills to use in the service of ruinous ideas.  

And it could get worse:

Conservative frustration with government growth increased with President Bush's first term, which added more than $1 trillion to the national debt. Conservatives once talked of electing their own; they now talk of electing their own and tying their hands.

Stop us before we spend again? "Yes, that's really it," said Mr. Armey, who argues that the pressures to spend, reinforced by lobbyists and contributors, can overwhelm even the firmest conservatives.
Another major fight is under way in California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has pushed an antispending provision onto the fall ballot, albeit one seemingly less strict than that of Colorado.

In Maine, a veteran tax opponent, Mary Adams, is gathering signatures to put a spending cap on the ballot next year. And last year, the leader of the Wisconsin Senate, Mary Panzer, a moderate Republican, delayed convening a special session to consider a spending cap. That drew a primary challenge from a conservative rival, Glenn Grothman, who defeated her in what Mr. Norquist calls a watershed moment.

"It's one thing when policy analysts are supporting something," Mr. Norquist said. "It's another when it becomes the kind of thing politicians lose seats over."

Other states where advocates are pushing caps include Arizona, Kansas, Florida, Maryland, Missouri, Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia... his opponents say a defeat for Mr. Owens will send a signal nationwide that voters like spending caps.

Colorado, of course, elected a Democratic Senator and gave the party majorities in both houses of the state legislature last year. While people might "like spending caps," they seem to prefer problem-solving to ideology. The Times article concludes by quoting Gov. Owens as saying, "Their job is to build memberships, keep the base active and convince members that the bad guys are always out to get them. In this case they're wrong." Sounds to me like a man who's more interested in political survival than playing nice with the pressure-group crowd.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Careful What You Wish For
As I've noted here a few times before, I am not a huge Hillary Clinton fan. I don't trust her integrity and I substantially disagree with her politics. I voted for her in her 2000 Senate race because, one, I couldn't stand Rick Lazio and two, I liked the idea of the right-wingers who really hate Hillary waking up with stomach pain for the following six years thinking of her in high office. And I hope she's returned to the Senate for another term next year--and that she serves it out. My stance in the 2008 Democratic primary contest might well be Anyone But Hillary.

For that matter, I'm still hoping she won't run for the top job at all. The ideal outcome in 2006 would be a Hillary victory, but a close one--under 55 percent, running weak outside New York City in a strong Democratic year overall. Today's somewhat surprising development, that Westchester District Attorney Jeanine Pirro will oppose Clinton next year, probably raises the likelihood of this scenario coming to pass--and Pirro is focusing on the Senator's vulnerability:

In an interview, Ms. Pirro made it clear that she would elevate the Senate race into a national political event, as she criticized Mrs. Clinton's rumored presidential ambitions as much as her Senate record for the last four and a half years.

"Hillary Clinton is not running to serve the people of New York," Ms. Pirro said. "We are just a way station in her run for the presidency."

She added: "I think voters will choose the only woman who really wants the job. My full-time is a whole lot better than her part-time."

What I'm not sure about is whether New Yorkers really mind that one of their representatives is considering higher office. Nelson Rockefeller and Mario Cuomo did just fine, despite opponents who raised some of those same questions; in fact, Cuomo only lost after it became clear he'd never run for the White House. Other state pols, like Robert F. Kennedy and John Lindsay, made presidential runs that were popular at home. There's certainly an art to finessing the question, and my political fantasy is that Hillary will somehow screw it up and only be able to save herself by pledging to serve out her term. But Clintons generally do okay finessing questions, and they'll be able to raise a host of other issues to deter the press from focusing exclusively on 2008: Pirro's tax-cheat husband, Bush's job performance, homeland security, Iraq.

I'm also not certain just how Pirro will differentiate herself from Clinton. Both, at this point, are social moderates with hawkish tendencies. That's how any New York pol has to play it, from Schumer to Pataki, which raises the question of what change Pirro can offer. The argument that Hillary has "moved to the center" to position herself for future campaigns might be true (I think it is, though I'd suggest that one can't abandon principles never really held), but it's also of much more interest to pundits than voters--as Bill Clinton himself spectacularly demonstrated. Republicans feared, with much justification, that he was "stealing their issues," but they weren't able to exact a political price for his doing so.

There are a lot of shoes left to drop. And part of me will always want to see Republicans just destroyed for their rotten policies and delusional tactical thinking: the notion that Bill Clinton's old transgressions, in a state where he's still overwhelmingly popular, somehow cancels out Albert Pirro's sleazy doings is wishful thinking and then some. Even so, if Pirro runs hard and loses, but does some damage to Hillary's presidential ambitions, both the state and the country will be better off for it.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

"T.O." in "Team"?
I was at the gym late yesterday afternoon and looked up at the TV monitor to see the show with the two blowhards from the Washington Post on ESPN. They spent a long chunk of time talking about the Eagles and the drama around refusenik wideout Terrell Owens. Rich Hoffman, a Philadelphia Daily News columnist who's one of the city's better sports scribblers, had one incredible line that almost knocked me off the elliptical machine: "In Philadelphia, we're not good at championships, but we're great at circuses." He predicted that Owens would get more cheers than boos in the first open-to-the-public practice to be held this morning.

Apparently he was right--and T.O. played it like a champ.

[M]any fans booed the disgruntled All-Pro receiver and some taunted Owens during Wednesday morning's practice at Lehigh University.

But it took just a simple smile and a little interaction for Owens to win them over again.

"This ain't San Francisco," one fan yelled as Owens knelt along the sidelines, listening to the derisive jeers. "You ain't bigger than this team. Shut up and play."

They took their best shots, and scolded Owens for hiring agent Drew Rosenhaus.

Finally, Owens stood up, turned to the crowd, cracked a smile and pumped his left arm up, urging them to make more noise.

The fans suddenly erupted in cheers and the same guy who was riding Owens the loudest started chanting the "T.O." song. Owens flashed a wider grin, nodded his head in approval and walked back toward the field.

It was the first time this summer fans could see Owens practice, and some of the Philly die-hards started lining up at 4 a.m. just to get a glimpse of him running patterns with the NFC champions.

If his play is as good as his showmanship--and it always has been--T.O. should be just fine.