Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Why Were They Waving Foreign Flags?

Right-wing blogger** Mickey Kaus is, predictably, caught up in a symbolic issue that lets him hint at a conservative stance on substantive policy without having to actually state it or back it up: the large number of Mexican and other Central American flags being waved at the huge, peaceful, friendly L.A. march against the vicious immigrant- and immigrant-helper-bashing Sensenbrenner bill.

**Kaus is allegedly a Democrat, but as a Slate blogger, his ratio of snark/dismissal/mockery to praise towards progressives and Dems runs well near 20:1 or 30:1 - and on the radio March 23, he "tried not to agree with everything Hugh [Hewitt] said" - so, objectively, as a blogger, he's a 'winger.

Naturally, although he went down to the rally itself, Kaus did not actually ask anyone holding a Mexican flag why they were doing so - nor does he contradict the LA Times' account that vendors were running out of American flags for sale, and that some marchers were holding American flags in addition to foreign flags.

Personally, I've been to plenty of neighborhoods and St. Patrick's Day parades where the number of Irish flags overwhelming outnumbered American ones - yet no one ever seems to get upset about such a display of affection for another country, so long as it's European (France excepted if you like your bigotry O'Reilly style). (And yes, the Irish-American community was definitely a political force for liberal immigration laws, and against crackdowns on undocumented workers, during the decades when the Irish economy resulted in a huge population of undocumented Irishmen working in the U.S.; who knows whether that will continue, now that the Celtic Tiger's roar is summoning Eire's sons and daughters back to unprecedented opportunity at home.)

Thinking of those St. Patrick's Day parades, I can only imagine that most people would say - and I'm certain Irish-Americans would say - that it's entirely possible to hoist an foreign flag, express affection for the land of your forefathers, and still remain a devoted and patriotic American citizen. There's no non-bigoted reason not extend the same presumption to hard-working people when the flags hoisted are Mexican, Salvadoran, or other.

Still, the visual symbolism - or "optics" as the non-physicist community has taken to calling it - certainly isn't too good when the issue under consideration is a bill to crack down on undocumented immigrants, and everyone understands that the immigration presently at issue is largely from Mexico and Latin America, and people opposing the crackdown appear to have chosen this moment to express their devotion to another country. Xenophobia is a powerful strain in U.S. politics, and Kaus may have a point when he says that the very size of these rallies, when coupled with the pro-illegal immigrant sentiments and the Mexican flags, might hurt the cause of the ralliers. It seems likely to make many non-PC voters think, "Jeez, next year's rally will be even bigger. We'd better build that wall quick!"

So, why were they waving so many Mexican flags, along with the American ones? Was it a miscalculated attempt at making a show of numbers, to frighten off their political opponents with a huge display of opposition? Was it an attempt to show their defiance of those who would treat them as criminals - perhaps a slightly different style of political tug-of-war more common in Latin America?

Perhaps, but my girlfriend had a more likely thought - this was just a chance to show some ethnic pride and sense of self-worth. It likely wasn't what the lead organizers had in mind at all, but as anyone who's been to a standard left-wing protest march well knows, you can never impose perfect message discipline - back in college, the running joke that whatever the issue, the socialists would always turn up with their End U.S. Imperialism banner. Try to have a rally opposing the invasion of Iraq, and you got folks who turned up determined to use the occasion to tell the world about environmental protection, the CPUSA, human rights abuses in Uzbekistan, Mumia, the Bush economic agenda, gay marriage, what have you.

I always get exasperated with these people, because the whole point of a massive public rally, if it has a point, is usually to convince other people less certain, less ideological, less committed, maybe more moderate and apathetic, to take your side. Sometimes you just want a show of solidarity among your own members, as with a union picket line, but most of the time you want to convince outsiders to support your cause. I suspect the organizers of the LA rally were thinking the same thing - and would have preferred to see only American flags.

But you can't get half a million people (organizers claimed a million) to come to your rally and expect all of them to toe the line. Attending political rallies is something that most people don't do most of the time. In this case, many of the people attending the rally appear to have been folks who are undocumented and are usually afraid of asserting their ethnic identity, lest it draw attention to themselves. On this one day, people heard there was a huge event taking place, their friends and neighbors and relations were all going, and they decided to participate in the way that made sense to them personally. Here was a chance to join a public event so large, and to mix in with so many others, that waving a Mexican flag was sure, for once, to be a safe thing to do.

Another thing about rallies: you just can't get 500,000 people to express, in unison, a complicated, nuanced argument. The intelligent argument for Mumia, for instance, wasn't "Free Mumia Now!", it was "Give Mumia A Fair New Trial Now And Watch Him Probably Get Convicted But Don't Apply The Death Penalty Which Is Immoral And Should Be Outlawed!" Not only can you not ask hundreds of people, let alone hundreds of thousands, to stick to the text when the text is that long, you couldn't even motivate them to come to a rally in the first place if the emotional appeal was that diluted. Similarly, some critics in late 2002 - early 2003 were asking why the anti-Bush demonstrators why they didn't have a concrete, detailed response to waht we should do about Saddam. The answer is/was, because you can't get half a million people to enunciate a concrete, detailed plan - the most you can hope to get them to do is to show their support for a simple idea: don't kill Mumia. Don't invade Iraq.

Likewise, when the policy you're advocating is "McCain - Kennedy, But Maybe With Some Adjustments! But Definitely Not Sensenbrenner! And We're Not Satisfied With the Compromise Specter Is Hammering Out!", you can barely fit that on your pamphlet, and no way does it get on a banner. As for the rally, the most you can realistically hope to do is to tell the world that hard-working immigrants deserve support and sympathy, not a harsh, mean-spirited crackdown. And that's perfectly appropriate - the real motivation for the Sensenbrenner bill isn't some dry white paper from Heritage, it's an equally simple, emotional feeling, in this case a feeling of xenophobia - find 'em, kick 'em out, and throw up a wall so no more can get in. So countering one simplistic, heavily symbolic message with another one isn't inappropriate at all. It's too bad that the foreign flags in LA may have interfered with the simple message that day, but in another way, as an expression of pride and self-worth, they may have amplified the message. Either way, as I say, free expression at a rally is unavoidable.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Shame of the Cities

The coda to one of the more memorable political documentaries of recent years was written yesterday, when Newark's Mayor Sharpe James announced that he would not seek a sixth term. The 70-year-old James, mayor for the past two decades, was posed to enter a rematch of his victory over Cory Booker in the 2002 mayoral elections, as chronicled in "Street Fight", but withdrew his candidacy at the last minute.**

Watching Street Fight was a sad experience for a variety of reasons. Debra Dickerson nailed some of them: she found that watching the film was
seeing the civil rights movement played out again in documentary form but with black thugs surreally replacing the white ones. This time, it was blacks taking away black folks' jobs for complaining about the status quo. It was blacks intimidating black voters and rigging the ballot boxes. It was blacks using the police to threaten and harass blacks who dared to speak up....James is as arrogant, amoral and corrupt in his power, the power conferred on him by the blood of the Movement dead, as Jim Crow ever was. I have always suspected that blacks would be as fascist, greedy, violent, criminal, and racist as whites if given the opportunity to be so and Sharpe James proves me right, sadly.
She might have added that James' campaign was anti-Semitic as well - the mayor tried to paint Booker, untruthfully, as Jewish, with the obvious presumption that this was, and would be seen as, a bad thing.

Another depressing thing about this film was seeing several of the heavyweights of the black political community come down to Neward to support James. One sensed that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, among others, were turning up to show solidarity with a fellow veteran of the civil rights movement - Booker was barely 30, if that - but could they not have remained neutral? James' record of thuggish machine-style politics was well-known by 2002, and his opponent was hardly some caricature of the Jim Crow past - Jackson and Sharpton were lining up against an extremely promising example of the next generation of African American leaders: a progressive Democrat and a Rhodes scholar who lived in the projects and whose agenda resembled their own.

The documentary lens also turn onto Philly this week, as "Shame of a City" recounts the 2003 mayoral election here. It's playing Friday night the 31st, and next Thursday afternoon, at the Philadelphia Film Festival. From the promo:
While the media offered plenty of reports about the various “complaints of misconduct,” none of them truly captured the rough-and-tumble political street-fighting the way that this unflinching behind-the-scenes documentary does....What will really shock the viewer is the conduct shown by some of our elected officials, their advisors and the political thuggery of their supporters. Power-tripping, race-baiting, manipulative cries of victimization litter the screen. Perhaps the real shame of this city is that we (as Americans) shouldn’t have to accept this as “politics as usual,” but after watching this powerful film, we will probably be too tired, confused and disillusioned to fight what appears to be a systemic problem.
Jesse Jackson also turns up here, shaking the hand of Mayor John Street, who was reelected despite the revelation that the F.B.I. had been bugging his office for a major corruption investigation. (In fact, the revelation appeared to spur a rise in Street's poll numbers, presumably due to outrage at the apparent attempt to influence the election on the part of the feds - even though the bug was revealed by the mayor's own appointed police chief.)

I expect that the film makes Street and his associates look pretty bad - it's been reported that the documentarian, Tigre Hill, was embedded in the campaign of Street's opponent, Republican Sam Katz, so there was bound to be a certain element of suspicion/hostility towards Hill from the Street camp anyway, but I anticipate underhandedness that exceeds normal political negativity. On the other hand, Katz refused to renounce Rick Santorum, and made it clear that once in office he might well offer political and financial support for the national GOP agenda, like NYC's Mike Bloomberg. Katz was also reported to have had some shady business dealings in his past, which he tried to keep under wraps. So, in this case, it was, both literally and figuratively, more black-and-white than Newark in 2002, and it's much less disappointing that Jackson, among others, would campaign for a veteran black Democratic insider. (To his credit, I haven't heard anything suggesting that Street's campaign was anti-Semitic in any sense, although Katz, unlike Booker, actually is Jewish.)

** James' resignation letter says that he is 'an opponent of dual office holding,' because he's also a State Senator - yet he's held both jobs for seven years. This seems to be a weird New Jersey trend - recently, Dick Codey, who turned out to be a terrific interim governor, was simultaneously a State Senator as well. I, too, oppose dual office holding, especially in two supposedly distinct and counterbalancing branches as once, and that blind spot was pretty much the one thing I disliked about Codey's tenure, but now I see that it's par for the course in the Garden State.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Take These Broken Wings
I'm out of here for about a week and a half, starting late on Thursday the 23rd, for a vacation in Italy with my wife. If all goes to plan, when I get back on the evening of April 3, the Phillies will be 1-0 and the temperature will actually reflect the season known as "spring," rather than this 30-something degree unpleasantness we've had for most of this month.

But while I'm actually feeling pretty good about the Phillies right now--though, in deference to The Navigator, I'm not making any predictions--my other favorite team isn't looking so strong. I speak, of course, about the Philadelphia Eagles.

In sports, I believe that when teams enjoy a sustained run of success, they get arrogant and come to believe they're smarter than the competition. One bad year is too easily dismissed as an aberration; sometimes it takes a half a decade of regular beatings for humility to return. Sometimes--think of the 1980s-era Phillies, who didn't even start to smarten up until a decade-plus on the receiving end of ass-kickings--it takes a lot longer than that.

As Rich Hoffman wrote in Wednesday's Philadelphia Daily News, this year we're going to find out whether the Eagles really are as smart as they think they are. Right now, my strong hunch is that they aren't, and that we're more likely to see more sub-.500 seasons than a return to the top of the NFC East. The 2006 Eagles right now look like a seven-win team to me, given the issues of age, health, and quality of division opponents. And even that might be optimistic.

Here's an easy way to think about it:

1) Thanks to advancing age and accumulated injuries, the remaining players from the team that went to Super Bowl XXXIX, by and large, won't be as good in 2006 as they were in 2004.

2) Of everyone else, pending the April draft, we've probably lost more starter-level talent (Owens, Burgess, Simon, Chad Lewis, Mayberry--all of whom were solid or better for that team) than we've brought on from 2004 til now (Howard, Gaffney, Barber, Brown, Patterson). If Jon Runyan signs elsewhere, the gap widens further.

3) The division opponents are all now considerably better than they were in 2004. None look to me like probably Super Bowl teams, but all three are probably 8-11 win clubs. If the defensive players Parcells drafted last spring develop as expected, Julius Jones stays healthy, and TO more or less behaves, the Cowboys might be as strong as any club in the NFC. (Dear god, I'm not sure I've ever written a more galling sentence.)

4) Andy Reid's regime has not been so good in the draft--or, more to the point, developing the talent brought in from the draft--that we should hang our hopes on what happens in late April.

Another way to think about it is that NFL clubs win by outplaying their opponents on the lines and at the skill positions. Again, just thinking about the NFC East, the Eagles come up short in both dimensions. For playmakers on offense, they've got Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook, Reggie Brown, Jafar Gaffney, and LJ Smith; Dallas has Drew Bledsoe, Jones, TO, Terry Glenn, and Jason Witten. I'll take McNabb over Bledsoe; do the Eagles look better anywhere else? You could make a case for Westbrook over Jones, but the bigger, younger guy is likely the better bet going forward.

Up the Jersey Turnpike, the Giants have Eli Manning, Tiki Barber, Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer and Jeremy Shockey. Again, McNabb's my preferred quarterback, though that gap will close. Otherwise, it's all Blue. Down I-95, the Redskins have Mark Brunell, Clinton Portis, Santana Moss, Brandon Lloyd or Antwaan Randle-El, and Chris Cooley. This is a recording: McNabb (if healthy) is the best quarterback in the division. And you could argue that LJ Smith is a better tight end than Cooley (who's listed as a fullback on the 'Skins' depth chart, for what that's worth).

Overall, I think it's clear that the Eagles have the worst overall talent at the offensive skill positions in the NFC East. And it's not particularly close; while McNabb is pretty clearly better than either of the veteran passers in Dallas and Washington, both guys can manage a game just fine--which minimizes the difference. Now, if the Eagles had a clearly superior offensive line, maybe that would make up for the deficit at the skill positions. Would you argue that they do? I sure wouldn't: the sacks-allowed and rush-per-carry stats peg their line (admittedly depleted by injuries) as substantially worse than either New York's or Washington's, and just a bit better than Dallas. With former Pro Bowler Runyan possibly leaving and fellow tackle Tra Thomas coming off a serious back injury, there might be more room for decline than improvement.

Rumor this afternoon (Thursday) is that Runyan might come back after all... but I'm out of time, and might (or might not) talk about the defense when I return. Suffice it to say that I don't think things are quite as bad on that side of the ball, but if they don't take a defensive tackle with their first draft pick, I'll be pretty upset.
My Nomination
...for one-trick political site of the year: right here.

What's particularly nice about this is that any Democrat this side of Jim Traficant (hell, maybe even him) probably could run against Cruella and successfully raise as much money as s/he needed. Unless Harris uses those same mad computer skillz that improperly purged likely Democratic voters from the Florida rolls in 2000 to access Bill Gates' Swiss bank account, her money ultimately won't matter.

Of course, it also doesn't help that she's implicated (though not facing imminent legal action) in one of this year's many Republican lobbying scandals, or that she's trailing incumbent Democratic Senator Bill Nelson by 10 points or so.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Self-Inflicted Wounds in Philadelphia

As the Democratic primary approaches in Pennsylvania on May 16, Philadelphia progressives are preparing for self-immolation.

In the U.S. Senate race, two liberals are vying with Bob Casey for the Democratic nomination to face Rick Santorum (R-Opus Dei) in the fall. I had attended a Move On election post-mortem in Mt. Airy, northwest Philly, in November 2004, at which participants discussed possible directions for the organization, and the overwhelming choice of the several dozen attendees at my meeting for the top organizing effort in the near future was defeating Santorum. Now Neighborhood Networks, a citywide organization formed in summer 2005 by frustrated Move On veterans wanting more local focus and more bottom-up, grassroots-led direction, is in the process of deciding what to do about the choices in the primary to pick Santorum's opponent. Obviously, Casey, an opponent of abortion, gay marriage, and gun control, doesn't share Neighborhood Networks' socially liberal platform (not yet adopoted, but here's a taste); just as obviously, he's the party's preferred candidate, and has a healthy advantage in fundraising, experience, and name recognition.

Recently, the steering committee and ward leaders met at a retreat, partly in order to decide what recommendation to make to the local ward committees (which would make any actual endorsements). The crucial part of the report that my ward's membership got back read:
The question was the wisdom of endorsing the stronger of the two alternatives to Bob Casey, Chuck Pennacchio, a candidate closer to our political values/policies. Some people argued that it was too risky to support Pennachio given that, with Casey's money and name recognition, he may defeat Pennachio in the primary. At first some were hesistant to take this position, but by the end, a majority argued that given what was at stake in national politics, that we needed to draw a line in the sand and help Pennachio to get elected as Casey's positions are not likely to make much difference in congress.
Now that has got to be one of the stupidest things I've read in quite some time. Not on the reporter's part - I'm not blaming the messenger here. But for those who actually took the apparent majority position...... gaahhh.....

Casey's positions wouldn't make much difference? My last post dealt that very argument, which is as wrong as wrong could be and could only be asserted by a smug, insular, straight middle class liberal whose concern for the less fortunate stops at the merely rhetorical. I don't want to beat it into the ground here, but suffice it to say that it's not the view of the poor people who are going to be cut off Medicaid after Santorum helps pass the $13 billion in Medicaid cuts that Shrub just proposed; or the view of the gay rights advocates at the Human Rights Campaign, who just endorsed Casey because of his firm support for domestic partnership benefits and his opposition to a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage; or the view of low-income workers who will need Social Security in the future rather than the fee-ridden, disaster-prone Chile-style privatized system that Santorum remains eager to advance; or of the labor community.

But let's not just talk about the merits. Let's talk about practicality and effectiveness. Casey "may" defeat Pennacchio? We need to "help Pennacchio to get elected"? If I may again quote the Master, 'that's the craziest f#!@ing thing I've ever heard.' Bob Casey Jr. has instant name recognition; is the son of a still-popular two-term governor; has been elected to statewide office multiple times; has raised $6 million; is a Catholic from Scranton; and is currently leading Santorum in the polls. Chuck Pennacchio is a liberal professor who teaches in Philadelphia, has never held office, and has raised $88,000.

I shouldn't actually need to go on any further to make the point, but I will. A liberal professor from Philadelphia? Who no one's ever heard of? Who's never won a single race (although he's worked on campaigns before)? Who hasn't even broken six figures, while Rick Santorum has raised $13 million? You're going to help him win? Who's out of their minds here?????

It's not that extreme dark horse candidates never win - they do, of course, once in a blue moon, but only when the front runner self-destructs. That still might happen in this race, but there's no reason to expect it to happen - the two frontrunners are both experience campaigners. Santorum, in particular, had made it abundantly clear that he was to the right of the Keystone state political mainstream in 2000, yet he still won an easy reelection victory over a guy who'd actually been elected to Congress before; he's a known quantity in Pennsylvania, not someone who's suddenly going to be exposed by the $9,100 Pennacchio has left in his account. The only serious, intelligent motive for working for the Pennacchio campaign at this point would be to send a strong signal of disgust to the party leaders for picking Casey, and try to use this campaign to start to build a progressive campaign that might succeed in future elections. That's not necessarily the worst idea in the world, but the delusion that Pennacchio might actually "win" the fall election does not bespeak serious, intelligent contemplation. Perhaps Pennacchio can use the contacts and experience he gains in this round to become a serious candidate for some lesser office in 2008 - that would be great, because, to be clear, I'd much rather have someone with his policy positions representing me than either of the two frontrunners. But first he's going some learning to do - such as recognizing that, contrary to what he subtly implies on his blog, it's simply not the case that Pa. Dems keep losing because they nominate social conservatives. True, Ron Klink in 2000 was a social conservative, but Lynn Yeakel in 1992 was a firm liberal, and Arlen Specter's still sittin' there voting for tax cuts for the rich.

Meanwhile in the 175th state house district, a totally useless incumbent machine Democrat, Marie Lederer, is retiring. The official machine party nominee to replace her is her longtime chief of staff, Mike O'Brien. Now, the 175th - the fightin' 175th, of course - covers much of Queen Village, Old City, and Northern Liberties, parts of the city that have seen recent influxes of young people who are presumably much less tied to the machine and the ward leaders that make it run. But the district also includes Kensington, Fishtown and Port Richmord, old-fashioned 'river wards' where the machine racks up big totals. In Philly, the machine wins nearly every time. Nevertheless, there've been signs of a split in the party hierarchy recently, raising the possibility that O'Brien won't have unified party support (although all but two ward leaders voted to endorse him at a recent meeting, I hear). Presumably, he also lacks Lederer's name recognition.

So there's something of a chance for a true outsider progressive to pick up this seat. The 175th, fortunately, isn't like Pennsylvania generally - you don't have to deal with a couple hundred miles of right-wingers from Lancaster to Somerset in order to get anywhere. To actually win, though, you'd almost certainly need a unified progressive effort, working for a single challenger to O'Brien.

And what's happening? Three challengers, of course, none of whom is willing to drop out and throw their support to the other - and at least two of whom are progressives with nearly identical stances. One, Anne Dicker, is a young cofounder of a promising and impressive 3,000 strong grassroots organization called Philly for Change. The other, Terry Graboyes, is a longtime veteran of Philly progressive politics and appears to have racked up a number of valuable endorsements. A third candidate, Peter Fiorentino, doesn't appear to have a similar resume. Graboyes claims to have the support of several city council members, and to have raised $50,000; Dicker is exploring the possibilities of a strategy to bring out voters who normally sit out non-Presidential elections, and turn the tide by overcoming the ward-directed votes of the usual suspects. Both offer the prospect of intriguing energy and new blood in Harrisburg. Both are also doomed to fail.

Get formerly apathetic voters motivated about a state house race on a Tuesday in late April? Split the progressive vote and still beat the ward leaders' favorite candidate? Here again, maybe - but only if something freakish happens. To be clear, both Dicker and Graboyes sound like women with their hearts in the right place - at a meeting on Saturday, they both expressed their concern with preserving abortion rights and raising the minimum wage. Here's hoping they weather the inevitable drubbing that awaits Philly progressives in April 2006, and go on to build something bigger and better in future years.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Bush Gets One Right (sort of)
Today's New York Times informs us that President Bush is about to embark upon another of those "series of major policy speeches" on Iraq. Though he has no new initiatives to unveil, and the ongoing drumbeat of bad news from that troubled region seems to present a risk of (yet more) severe political embarrassment in a second term that's well on the way to setting a standard of substantial and stylistic political failure, Bush evidently is set to make one meta-point that I think is well taken: America can't simply disengage from the rest of the world.

[S]tarting on Monday, just a few days shy of the third anniversary of Mr. Bush's order to topple Saddam Hussein, the president will begin an effort to explain his Iraq strategy anew in the changed environment of increased sectarian killings.

He acknowledged on Saturday that "many of our fellow citizens" are "now wondering if the entire mission is worth it."

But rather than simply delve into the familiar talk about the need to root out terrorists abroad so they cannot strike Americans here, the White House plans to have Mr. Bush expand his discussion of the need for the United States to embrace a new role in the world, even if that means explaining the benefits of globalization to a nation that does not appear to be in a mood to hear that message.
A search of the White House Web site confirms that Mr. Bush, who in the days before he took office kept the take-no-prisoners speeches of Teddy Roosevelt on a table at his ranch, made little mention of "globalization" for much of his first five years in office, even when European leaders brought it up.

Asked once, several years ago, about his aversion to the topic, one of his senior aides said Mr. Bush associated the word with "mushy Clintonianism."

"It ranks up there with 'nation-building,' " he added.

No longer. Now Mr. Bush is moving into a new phase of his presidency, not by choice or natural inclination, it seems, but by necessity. Mr. Bush changed his tone on nation-building several years ago.

As the invasion turned to occupation, he emphasized the spread of democracy. But even that talk, especially during his re-election campaign, had a unilateralist subtext: the schools and polling places were open because the hammer of the American military made it possible.

His new theme is different, because it is all about interdependence. Two of his aides say the near defeat of the Central American Free Trade Agreement in Congress last summer — it passed by one vote, after arm-twisting by the president brought just enough Republicans back into the fold — jolted Mr. Bush into recognizing a new retreat from the world by his own party.

There are actually two things to like here. Globalization, first of all, is a fact of life whether we embrace it or not. Bush is very much with the mainstream of economic opinion when he says (as is noted later in this article) that we should be excited, not solely apprehensive, at what "a 300-million-person market of middle-class citizens here in India" can mean for the sale of American-made products.

(The corollary, which unfortunately Bush doesn't seem to grasp at the policymaking level, is that to take advantage of this emerging market, you need to continuously cultivate a world-class knowledge workforce that will create things of interest and value to that market--as well as to this one. Thus, government disinvestment in financial assistance for higher education and research and development within numerous fields of inquiry is ultimately self-defeating, no matter how happy it makes Grover Norquist when you cut the "investment budget" to fund his tax cut.)

Given how badly Bush has failed to explain anything with non-emotional arguments (see: Social Security "reform," Medicare Part D, Iraq since the '04 election), it seems like a stretch to believe that he'll be able to make this case. It can be done, however, and my guess is that as the 2008 election draws closer, there will be both Democrats and Republicans who successfully explain the issue. (He could also just ask Bill Clinton to do it.)

Bush's real problem is with the other half of the "engagement" argument: using America's power beyond our borders. When you've lost William F. Buckley on Iraq, who's left to count on? The administration's toxic mix of dishonesty, rhetorical incoherence, and just piss-poor implementation is what's really behind the rising neo-isolationist impulse, and this is Bad with a capital B for the country: though Saddam was not a threat, and we should have known as much, Iran could well prove to present a major danger to world peace and stability as well as American interests. Pakistan, too, is a nuclear-armed dictatorship with radical religious elements who want to rule; if Musharraf falls, it's hard to predict what would happen.

Rather than either acting unilaterally, as we essentially did in Iraq, or retreating from the world's troubled areas, we should be using every instrument in the toolbox of governance--sanctions, coalition-building, and force as a last result--to advance both our interests and ideals. By just about any standard, George H.W. Bush did this successfully in both managing the first Gulf War and helping to build a stable post-Cold War order; he had his failures as well, with China after the 1989 crackdown, the Balkans, and in places like East Timor, but on balance he was a successful foreign policy president.

And, terrible though she was as National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice has actually done a decent job at this since taking over the State Department--working through the EU on Iran, reaching out to China and Russia as well, trying to mediate disputes elsewhere in the Middle East. That's a pretty good start. The hard political sell, however, will come if/when those measures fail and some use of force is called for. I don't know which party will carry the neo-isolationist banner at that point--but whoever is in front will have a much stronger case because of George Bush's failures in Iraq.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

How Not to Help the Poor, or, Why Bob Casey Matters

Recently, in discussing politics with some committed progressives, I've been wondering about certain latent strains of myopia. I'm in the staging area for one of this year's top political attractions, Rick Santorum vs. Bob Casey for U.S. Senate - an iron cage match, no holds barred. The latter, although he's been endorsed by gay rights groups and is no cartoonish troglodyte, is nevertheless a committed Catholic, and opposes gay rights and abortion, and well as gun control. Whether in spite of that or because of that, he's the Democratic leadership's chosen candidate. On Tapped, one commenter to this post, responding to the view that support for Casey demonstrates merely that Democrats 'want to win', expressed a common sentiment:
I guess my thought always is, "...want to win what?" Our anti-civil-rights stands are decorated more tastefully than the Republicans'? We'll throw women's rights over the side, but some of us will feel bad about it? Oh, I'm sorry, women should just "get over it."
I had a longer response to that comment, but I want to focus on one aspect of it here. There's not much debate that there were, and are, no Pennsylvania Democrats likely to defeat Santorum who are social liberals. The pertinent question is, whether progressives should care enough about electing Casey that they devote time, money, and energy to the cause, or whether they should sit back and refuse to cooperate with the DSCC leadership that 'shoved Casey down our throats.'

So, is Casey worth it? If his position on abortion is close to Santorum's, does it matter if we work to get him elected? Here's one item for people to consider - an item which primarily affects vulnerable women: recently, the Senate passed, by a single vote, a budget bill that substantially alters national welfare policy. Casey would have opposed it; Santorum strongly supported it. It is already forcing changes, for the worse, for the least well-off in our society.

The GOP, which passed a welfare repeal bill in 1996 on the theory that the federal government should let the states innovate and send them block grant money without top-down interference, has now decided, after welfare rolls have plummeted, that what's needed is a whole lot more top-down interference. In particular, they've determined, states haven't been putting enough people to work - too many enrollees aren't doing work activities. Thus, the percentage of people receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families who must work to keep getting their check has been jacked up, and the definitions of what constitutes work have been narrowed.

As Congress well knows, millions of people have left welfare in the past ten years. They were, by and large, those most able to work and support themselves on their own. The easy welfare-to-work cases, in other words, are already off the rolls. In Pennsylvania, enrollment is down by about 50%. The rolls mostly fell in the late nineties, during the Clinton boom years (and, in fact, largely before Pennsylvania's work requirement and welfare time limits were phased in in 1999); of those who remained, a substantial portion continued to work or attend job training.

To the credit of the state, and of the welfare department appointees under Republican governor Tom Ridge, Pennsylvania began planning initiatives to meet the needs of those who would be left behind on the rolls but still had problems working. In particular, the state developed the Maximizing Participation Program, which was carefully designed to conduct individual assessments for people who had problems meeting the work requirement, determine what barriers they faced, and then address them through counseling and treatment. MPP discovered countless TANF parents who had never been officially considered disabled, but who upon closer examination were so limited and disabled that they were eligible for permanent federal disability benefits. Many others, whose disabilities were less severe, received personal attention and helpful direction. Good idea, right? Just how we'd like welfare agencies to address people trapped in deep poverty, you'd think?

Well, too bad. The state will almost certainly have to end MPP now, because too many people aren't doing the work that Congress demands right now, and the state has to direct all of its resources to getting people into jobs. Rick Santorum was explicitly told that the Republican TANF bill would likely mean the end of MPP - but by Jove he supported the bill with enthusiasm. He wasn't even deterred when reminded that the bill fell billions short of the child care funding that independent, nonpartisan observers like the CBO and GAO had said would be necessary to allow welfare recipients to attend the jobs that the bill pushed them into in the first place.

With Little Ricky's bill now the law, Pennsylvania has already announced that it's eliminating one aspect of the effort to try to see what barriers are preventing poor mothers from working:
Effective March 01, 2006, CAOs will no longer be able to make new referrals to the Assessment Project (AS). TANF Reauthorization requires states to meet Employment and Training participation rates through specific activities. The Assessment Project has no activities which are countable toward this goal and therefore will be terminated as a stand-alone project. CIS Bulletin Board - Daily Status - Non-Financial D2299 [from interal Office of Income Maintenance website 2/28/06]
In addition, the state plans to push more people to take a job, any job at all; discourage them from education, training, counseling, or anything that might improve their long-term prospects but doesn't look like a job; and sanction anyone who doesn't comply.

In a subscription-only article at The American Prospect Online, straight-shooter sociologist Christopher Jencks and two colleagues describe the problem nicely: "
States can meet [the new work] requirement either by putting recipients to work or pushing them off the rolls entirely. Since today’s TANF recipients are mostly hard to employ, putting them to work will be difficult and expensive. Pushing them off the rolls will be cheaper and easier.
State officials’ temptation to choose the cheap alternative will be exacerbated if Congress adopts the administration’s recent budget proposals for the next five years... given all the competing claims on states’ resources, the new federal work requirements for single mothers may well bring about the hardships that liberals have been predicting since 1996....
[S]ingle mothers with incomes less than 70 percent of the poverty line [are in] a condition we call “severe” poverty... between 1996 and 2003, severe poverty rose slightly... While most single mothers have more money today than their counterparts had in 1996, the poorest mothers do not. Tighter work requirements will make this problem even worse if states meet the new federal requirements by pushing families off the welfare rolls entirely....
The main reason welfare reform has hurt so few families is that the combination of rising wages and work supports like the EITC and child-care subsidies made work an economically viable option for single mothers who could hold a job. But the damage was also limited by the fact that states had enough flexibility to shelter mothers they judged incapable of working. That flexibility is now being reduced dramatically. The economic fate of single mothers is now tied to the business cycle in the same way as that of other working-age parents. Welfare is no longer the poverty trap that it was, but it is also less of a safety net. As other federal funds aimed at the poor are cut, the safety net will become even more threadbare."
If that's not enough for you, there's a sweetener: in the same bill, Congress cut Medicaid funding by $10 billion, and eliminated any restrictions on co-pays and premiums for the poor. A disabled Pennsylvania resident living on $205 per month now pays as much as $12 per prescription; under the new law, that co-pay could rise indefinitely - infinitely. Any states with hearts softer than steel won't want to charge outrageous premiums and co-pays to the poorest of the poor - but the feds are cutting out $10 billion of support for the program, so the states' options are pretty limited. Again, for those not clear: Santorum: provided crucial vote to pass these changes. Casey: would have opposed these changes. Food for thought.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Let There Be More Darkness
In the not quite six years I've been researching and writing on social policy issues, the most difficult but also most rewarding thing I've done was the Working Poor Families Project. Toward the end of 2004, CUF and our partners at the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy released a report titled "Between Hope and Hard Times," about low-income working families in New York State and how government policies in a number of areas, from post-secondary financial aid to economic development investments to income supports like the Earned Income Tax Credit and Unemployment Insurance, helped or hindered them in their efforts to get ahead. The basic premise of the project, which was supported by three major national philanthropic foundations, struck me then and now as deeply resonant with the whole American idea: that families who work hard and live right should enjoy a measure of economic security.

We found that despite the general prosperity of the last decade-plus and some highly laudable programs at the state and local levels, the numbers of low-income working families in the state have increased. (A forthcoming update brief, to be released later this month, shows that this trend unfortunately has accelerated in the 18 months since we issued the full report.) The question we couldn't answer to my satisfaction, though, was this: are today's working poor substantially the same people who had jobs but struggled to make ends meet five, ten, twenty years ago? The problem, in other words, isn't necessarily poverty: it's opportunity and mobility. One state agency we engaged with in the course of researching the report presented us with a Census study from the late 1990s indicating that economic mobility remains high; we also found a study by two Federal Reserve economists that strongly suggested that mobility had sharply declined since the 1970s. In the report, we wrote that "for the state to truly gauge how its anti-poverty policies are performing, we must have better information."

So it comes as a disappointment, but not a huge surprise, that the Bush administration proposes to do away with one of the federal government's more effective programs that provide *any* information on this subject: the Census Bureau's Survey of Income and Program Participation. Ironically, the study that suggested the enduring strength of economic mobility was a product of SIPP data. Follows here a little description, of both the program itself and how its demise has been presented:

The SIPP is the only major longitudinal survey that tracks the same families over time. While it has a representative sample that allows it to be used to examine issues affecting the whole population, it over samples low income households, which makes it especially useful for examining the impact of TANF, Medicaid, and other anti-poverty programs. Ostensibly, the reason for eliminating the SIPP is to save the $40 million annual cost of fielding the survey (@ 6 hours of the Iraq war).

Usually, plans to alter or eliminate major surveys are floated well in advance in order to get input from the community of researchers, policy makers, and advocates that rely on the survey. This plan was crafted in the dark of night and kept secret until the 2007 budget was released. Perhaps the secrecy was needed to keep us safe from the terrorists, but this does not seem like best path for producing reliable data.

To put it mildly, $40 million is not a lot of money in a multi-trillion dollar federal budget. It's the dime you find in the couch cushion, if that. For that matter, it's a pretty miniscule fraction of the money we spend on the programs SIPP helps us understand better: Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, the federal welfare program that was recently stealth-reauthorized when the Republicans inserted it within a budget reconciliation bill (a DeLay special: enact something that could never pass on its merits by tying it to a measure necessary to keep government functioning), has been flat-funded since Clinton first signed it in 1996, and we still spend something like $16 billion on it, plus state matching funds. Medicaid, the growth of which is squeezing state budgets from coast to coast, consumes a much bigger share of the federal budget.

A reflexive right-wing response to this whole problem might just be, "Fuck it--we should eliminate all those programs anyway." (In fact, I think one of our visiting trolls pretty much wrote that a few weeks ago.) Putting aside the human consequences of such a switch, the truth is that it's not happening: not now, not ever. Even the most rabid Republican governor would foul his wool britches without the billions in federal aid to fund income support and social safety net programs; they want more, not less. For that matter, consider poor Wal-Mart; without Medicaid, they'd be unable to sustain a workforce. The point is that these programs aren't just handouts; they're pivotal to the functioning of the U.S. economy. (Also keep in mind that majorities of the poor and near-poor work; this isn't your grandpa's Cadillac welfare queen, not that she ever really existed as much more than a trope for haters.)

So we're going to have these programs, and we're going to spend billions of dollars on them. The question is whether we want to keep the tools to evaluate them, see where they're helping and where they can be stretched farther and where they're being wasted--or whether we'd just prefer to remain in blissful ignorance, out of some notion that the less we know about those on the economic margin, the less we have to worry about them.