Monday, July 31, 2006

Does The New Republic have amnesia?

The New Republic on heterodox opinions and tolerance of differing views within the Democratic party, July 30, 2006:
This, of course, is what drives Lieberman's opponents nuts: not his actual views on foreign policy, but his insistence that those views have a logical home in the Democratic Party and his attempts to justify those views on liberal grounds. In other words, it's less about political substance than about raw betrayal. This is the troubling worldview of many left-wing bloggers--who tend to treat liberalism as if it were a team rather than a political philosophy--and it is the worldview that the Times has implicitly backed this weekend. If you consider its Lamont endorsement in conjunction with its previous Shays endorsement, you have to wonder: Was the Times coming out against those who enable Bush or against the concept of liberal heterodoxy?
- Richard Just, 'The Times, Lieberman, and Shays,' The New Republic Online

The New Republic on heterodox opinions and tolerance of differing views within the Democratic party, May 7, 2006:
In the end, though, I can't quite root for Lieberman to lose his primary. What's holding me back is that the anti-Lieberman campaign has come to stand for much more than Lieberman's sins. It's a test of strength for the new breed of left-wing activists who are flexing their muscles within the party. These are exactly the sorts of fanatics who tore the party apart in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They think in simple slogans and refuse to tolerate any ideological dissent. Moreover, since their anti-Lieberman jihad is seen as stemming from his pro-war stance, the practical effect of toppling Lieberman would be to intimidate other hawkish Democrats and encourage more primary challengers against them.
- Jonathan Chait, New Republic editor, 'Don't let the left defeat Lieberman,' in The Los Angeles Times

The New Republic on heterodox opinions and tolerance of differing views within the Democratic party, December 2, 2004:
The challenge for Democrats today is... abandoning the unity-at-all-costs ethos that governed American liberalism in 2004. And it requires a sustained battle to wrest the Democratic Party from the heirs of Henry Wallace. In the party today, two such heirs loom largest: Michael Moore and MoveOn.... Today, most liberals naïvely consider Moore a useful ally, a bomb-thrower against a right-wing that deserves to be torched. What they do not understand is that his real casualties are on the decent left. When Moore opposes the war against the Taliban, he casts
doubt upon the sincerity of liberals who say they opposed the Iraq war because they wanted to win in Afghanistan first....Many MoveOn supporters probably disagree with the organization's opposition to the Afghan war, if they are even aware of it, and simply see the group as an effective means to combat Bush. But one of the lessons of the early cold war is scrupulousness about whom liberals let speak in their name....
For liberals to make such arguments effectively, they must first take back their movement from the softs. We will know such an effort has begun when dissension breaks out within America's key liberal institutions....Challenging the "doughface" feminists who opposed the Afghan war and those labor unionists with a knee-jerk suspicion of U.S. power might produce bitter internal conflict.... But, unless liberals stop glossing over fundamental differences in the name of unity, they never will [enact liberal anti-totalitarianism policies].
- Peter Beinart, 'A Fighting Faith,' The New Republic

So, just who is it that wants to 'tear the party apart' these days? I'm tempted to say that what Richard Just and Jonathan Chait do not understand is that Lieberman's real casualties are on the liberal wing of the Democratic party, when he casts doubt upon their patriotism and their ability to mount sensible, fact-based critiques of GOP administrations. But the truth is that they don't really give a damn about maintaining a big tent party. This isn't about fairness - it's just about power.

When the shoe seems to be on their foot, they try to stamp out dovish dissent without mercy. When suddenly, in a Connecticut primary, the anti-war left appears to be wearing the shoe instead, TNR mewls about respect for outsider voices within the party structure, and not letting one wing conduct a "jihad" to "intimidate" the hawks. For a pack of muscular, vigorous, tough liberals with the 'fighting faith' needed to defeat Islamofascist terrorism, they sure seem to be a bunch of wimps. Ultimately, their pleas for comity and respect for ideological dissent are the insincere whining of a bully who calls for Robert's Rules of Order when he's outnumbered: it has nothing to do with principle; it's just a tactic, until they get to be King of the Hill again and can start pushing their hated antiwar Dems down the hill and out of the party.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Is Republicanism Simply About Greed?: An Open Letter to John Ponterotto

Mr. Ponterotto,
I want to thank you for the perhaps unwittingly candid remarks you made to the Philadelphia Inquirer's Paul Nussabaum for a piece that appeared in yesterday's Sunday Inquirer. So candid that I expect you're already getting flack for it - undeserved flack, let me say.

Nussbaum set out to examine whether voting patterns can be neatly explained by income, and while the article was inconclusive, the fascinating window into the microcosm of the wealthy enclave of New Canaan, CT - as Nussbaum notes, "the richest town in the richest county in the richest state," though he didn't add, "in the richest country in the history of the world" - was well worth the read. In fact, by the end, I think I had found an area of common ground on which we can work to advance our mutual interests.

As the local Republican Party chairman, you explained to Nussbaum why so many of your friends and neighbors vote for the GOP. Is it the Republicans' superior moral values? Their superior honesty? Their wisdom in foreign policy? Their determination to look out for the poor and disadvantaged at home and abroad? No:
The local Republican Party chairman, investment banker John Ponterotto, sees a financial incentive for New Canaan Republicans: their tax bracket. "My theory is that until you get up to incomes of about $75,000, people are not that interested in taxes," Ponterotto said. "But when you get up to $150,000 to $200,000, you really start to feel the bite of income taxes and it becomes an issue for you. And the only people willing to address that are the Republican Party."
Ponterotto said he sees a shift among the superrich. "At exceedingly high income levels, there's a lot of support for the Democratic Party. I don't hear people with $2 million incomes complaining about taxes; I hear people with $200,000 incomes complaining about taxes."
Now that is some refreshing honesty - it's about the taxes. These folks don't get to keep as much money as they want. And how much money is that, by the way? $150,000 puts you in the top 5% of all U.S. households. Probably just below the top 5% as of 2006, actually - more like the top 6%. These people just don't have enough money! And the only people willing to address that, you feel, are the Republican party.

That's not quite true, actually -but we'll get to that in a minute. First, are there any plausible alternative explanations for you people voting GOP? Nussbaum got two of your fellow townspeople to chime in, but only one of them makes a sensible case.
Paul Giusti, a selectman in New Canaan's town government, made his money in housing construction in the Midwest. The grandson of Italian and Lithuanian immigrants, he votes Republican.
"In our town, the people who vote Republican, I think, believe in less government intervention and more personal freedom," Giusti said.
"Less government intervention and more personal freedom"? From the party of Sam Brownback and Rick Santorum? More freedom to marry whomever you choose? More freedom to have abortions? To perform research on stem cells? To speak foreign languages? To express yourself by burning the flag? To gamble on the Internet? To experiment with narcotics? To disseminate provocative and lurid images and expressions? To talk on the phone without warrantless government agents intervening in your privacy? Let us not embarrass Mr. Guisti by belaboring his ridiculous notions any further. Besides, we have his fellow New Canaanite Kira Brandman, who confirms your point:
In New Canaan, there is support for [this] theory in the hillside home of Andrew and Kira Brandman. Andrew is a senior vice president of the New York Stock Exchange and votes Republican. Kira, after a career in telecommunications, stays at home with the couple's two young children and is active in the local Democratic Party.
"We're really both more centrist than to the right or left," said Kira, 38. "We have similar thoughts on abortion and where tax money should go. But my vote is for the betterment of everyone, instead of just the betterment of myself.
"My husband describes himself as socially responsible, fiscally conservative. He's pro-choice, he's for gun control, but he works hard and he wants to keep his money."
Yeah, that's the ticket. If you see Kira around, Mr. Ponterotto, please share my thanks with her, for her naked confession of her husband's simple greed - his vote, like yours, is simply for the betterment of his NYSE-senior-vice-president self.

Now, here's the deal: there's a party out there which actually does work for an agenda which, overall, does in fact result in more personal freedom - and the kicker is that this party wants to adjust federal tax policy so that one huge chunk of the tax burden falls less heavily on folks in that $150,000-$200,000 bracket that you and I are equally concerned about. This party is known as the Democrats. And if their agenda fails, there's little doubt that the income tax burden on folks like you will have to rise substantially in the future.

You see, there are these folks out there who don't seem to be concerned with paying their fair share - they're waging a form of class warfare, if you will, against you oppressed top 6 percenters. They're the superrich, the ones with the $2 million incomes, the ones you say you don't hear complaining about taxes. And why not? Because they're no longer paying the estate tax! Used to be, we had a (partial) hedge against a hereditary class of aristocrats in the form of a tax on estates, so that folks with huge fortures wouldn't simply pass all of it on to their superfortunate offspring (which would have deprived them of the incentive to learn about the manifold benefits of work). But the Bush/Cheney/Rove Republicans took it away - apparently they were too busy reducing government intrusions and increasing personal freedoms to realize what they were doing.

The Democrats have a better plan. They want bring the estate tax back (or, prevent it from being permanently repealed) but with an exemption of $2 million per taxpayer/$4 million per couple, eventually rising to $5 million, which will prevent 99% of all estates from being subject to it. You folks who are merely in the top 6% won't have a thing to worry about! Just like you didn't before 2001, before the astonishing fiscal irresponsibility of the Republican party was put into full effect. We'll just hit the superrich - and with the revenue raised, there won't be a need for a major income tax hike shortly down the road when the baby boomer retire.

Whaddya say? You're an investment banker - you know what a good investment looks like. Do you really want your portfolio heavy on the guys who have run up the biggest debt in U.S. history? Let's make a deal - for your own good.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Joe Lieberman--Man Out of Time
Yes, yes. Every other blog in the world has chimed in on the Connecticut Senate race, and as I'm nothing if not derivative, so too now shall I.

First off, I've supported Ned Lamont's candidacy since he announced, and I'm pretty sure I sent him some money. I hope he wins, and after the most recent round of polls, I'm starting to think he might. Like many (most?) Democrats, I deplore Lieberman for his kowtowing to Republicans, his screwed-up priorities and weird value system (this is a guy who deems rappers and videogame companies more harmful to society than corporate criminals who defraud millions), and for his sanctimony. It bugs the hell out of me that he's fought Lamont so much harder than he did the Bush/Cheney ticket in 2000.

It's not really the war. I think he's tragically, delusionally wrong on the war, but as many others have noted--and as the press, belatedly, seems to be starting to grasp--there are plenty of other Democrats who were equally wrong, many of whom haven't "come clean" (as Kerry, Edwards and others have; whether or not it's sincere, or just more political posturing, I really can't say) and few if any of them are facing intra-party challenges as ferocious as what Lieberman is up against.

What it really is, as witnessed by this item, is that Joe Lieberman is the favorite Democrat of people who hate Democrats. And with good reason: his appearances on Fox News, his repeated defenses of the president, his votes on so many issues of importance to progressives.

But two things give me slight pause. The first is that I don't think Lieberman himself understands why he's engendered so much scorn and anger. Maybe it's willful myopia; maybe it's a really, really low level of emotional intelligence. But I truly doubt he understands that praise from Sean Hannity and his vicious ilk indicates nothing except that these frothing partisans think that he helps their side--which is, for them, the only consideration.

In his own mind, perhaps Lieberman thinks it's still 1989, when he first took his seat in the Senate. At that time, the Republican leader in the upper house was Bob Dole, who showed the occasional sharp elbow but was essentially a postwar consensus politician, more or less okay with the welfare state, a believer in public service, and generally more focused on good policymaking than zero-sum mortal partisan combat. The president was George H. W. Bush, a quintessential Establishment pol with whom Lieberman probably felt very comfortable; both had Connecticut antecedents, both went to Yale, both were good on civil rights in the early days, and so on. It was, in short, a much less polarized time, and Lieberman--who'd won election in large part by running to the right of incumbent Republican Lowell Weicker--probably felt very comfortable.

But after 2000, when his milquetoast debate performance with Cheney represented a blown opportunity and he was at the core of the Democrats' losing the street fight (for that's essentially what it was, conducted by guys in $2,000 suits maybe, but still an exercise in will) in Florida, he should have wised up. He didn't, and that's why so many feel so strongly about beating him within the party this year.

The second reason I have slightly mixed feelings, though, is that the world Lieberman sees, or claims to see--where country takes precedence over party, where solutions form around consensus, and where community mores deserve public defense--is one that appeals to me. Right now on Daily Kos, there's a story that in effect blasts Lieberman's 1998 speech on the floor of the Senate criticizing Bill Clinton's extramarital gigity. The Kossites make the point, which I agree with, that Lieberman's showing greater outrage for Clinton's violation against his marriage than for George W. Bush's serial transgressions against the Constitution is deserving of scorn. But they also suggest that Lieberman should have kept his mouth shut about Clinton in the first place--and there, I disagree. In fact, the speech was the first time I clearly remember even hearing of Lieberman, and I wrote his office an e-mail commending his remarks.

Thing is, the dKos people are also right that in doing this, Lieberman gave aid and comfort to the would-be putschists on the Right. He arguably helped extend the Lewinsky idiocy longer than it might have gone on otherwise. And the country suffered as a result--though the speech probably did get him that spot on Al Gore's ticket not quite two years later.

Maybe the reason the anti-Lieberman movement has upset so many in the pundit class is that its supporters are holding up a mirror to Washington, and what they're seeing is very ugly. Lieberman's self-image is as a statesman floating above partisan politics, and a few outlets--most notably Bull Moose, which has really become the Daily Lieberman; before the Israel-Hezbollah conflict heated up, he was writing about this race close to every single day, repeating the same anti-netroots crap over and over--share this view. Others, the active Republicans ranging in intensity from David Brooks to Sean Hannity, seem most interested in defending their useful idiot by parrotting the Lieberman/Wittman view. After all, when Democrats yearn for bipartisanship, and Republicans view bipartisanship as date rape, there isn't much question who's gonna get screwed.

But most attentive Democrats, and evidently a growing number of Connecticut primary voters, also seem to get this. In the polarized politics largely created by the Rove Republicans, bipartisanship as a guiding principle is, well, quaint--and dangerous. When you're grasping for an olive branch and the other side is reaching for a revolver, it's a thin line between statesman and quisling.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Speak, Punditry
Yesterday I was asked for my thoughts about a few current political questions. I publish them here, not so much because I think they're particularly profound or insightful, but because I have the hunch I'll want to check back in two years or so and see how close or far I came to getting 'em right. Questions are italicized; my responses are in CAPS.

What do you think about Russ Feingold?

ADMIRABLE GUY. PROBABLY CAN'T WIN. JEWISH, TOO LIBERAL, TWICE-DIVORCED. WISCONSIN IS A REALLY, REALLY INTERESTING STATE IN TERMS OF ITS POLITICS. THEY ELECT PEOPLE WHOM MANY WOULD DISMISS AS EXTREMIST WEIRDOS BECAUSE THEY APPRECIATE PERSONAL AUTHENTICITY MORE THAN IDEOLOGY. BOB LAFOLLETTE, JOE MCCARTHY, WILLIAM PROXMIRE, TOMMY THOMPSON... RUSS FEINGOLD. I LIKE HIM A LOT, I'D WORK HARD FOR HIM IF HE WERE NOMINATED. PROBABLY HIS STRATEGY IS TO BE THE IDEOLOGICALLY PURE CHAMPION OF THE ONLINE ACTIVISTS AND RAISE MONEY FROM HOLLYWOOD. THE PROBLEM WITH THAT IS THAT EDWARDS AND OTHERS WILL ALSO GO FOR THE ONLINE VOTE, AND THEY *ALL* RAISE MONEY FROM HOLLYWOOD.

Why doesn't he have more buzz? Too liberal? Too divorced? What's so great about Hillary?

HILLARY IS ALMOST LIKE A REPUBLICAN NOMINEE IN MOST [presidential election] CYCLES. HIERARCHICAL BY NATURE, THE REPUBLICANS TEND NOT SO MUCH TO CONTEST THEIR NOMINATIONS AS ANOINT A "CHOSEN ONE" TWO OR THREE YEARS OUT, CONDUCT A SEMI-FARCICAL SERIES OF PRIMARIES IN WHICH THE "CHOSEN ONE" USES HIS (IT'S ALWAYS A HE, OF COURSE) POWERS OF WEALTH AND ORGANIZATION TO CRUSH HIS RIVALS AND ASSERT DOMINANCE OVER THE HERD. YOU COULD MAKE AN ARGUMENT THAT THE LAST TRULY OPEN REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL NOMINATION WAS IN 1964, OR MAYBE EVEN 1952. INTERESTINGLY, THEY HAVE NO CLEAR "CHOSEN ONE" FOR 2008; IT WOULD BE MCCAIN, BUT TOO MANY PEOPLE STILL HATE AND FEAR HIM.

THE DEMOCRATS ARE NOT AS HIERARCHICAL AND WILL OFFER SOME INSTITUTIONAL RESISTANCE TO THE ANOINTMENT OF HILLARY, BUT SHE WILL HAVE THE SAME ADVANTAGES OF MONEY AND ORGANIZATION AS A TYPICAL REPUBLICAN FAVORITE. SINCE I CAN'T STAND HER AND THINK SHE'D GET CRUSHED IN A GENERAL ELECTION, MY FEAR IS THAT SHE'LL GET 40 PERCENT OR SO IN PRIMARY AFTER PRIMARY, WHILE FIVE OTHER DEMOCRATS WILL SPLIT THE REMAINING 60 PERCENT; SHE'LL GET NOMINATED, BUT PEOPLE WON'T BE EXCITED ABOUT HER, AND THEN SHE'LL LOSE TO SOME CRYPTO-FASCIST IDIOT LIKE GEORGE ALLEN.


Also, do you think Bill Richardson will be the likely VP candidate no matter who's running for Prez?

IT WILL BE EITHER RICHARDSON, GOV. CATHERINE SEBELIUS (SP?) OF KANSAS, OR BARACK OBAMA. RICHARDSON WILL RUN FOR PRESIDENT, AND HE'S CHARISMATIC; ALSO AS A HALF-HISPANIC, HE'D HAVE AN ELECTORAL APPEAL THAT NO OTHER DEMOCRAT COULD BOAST. A RICHARDSON/OBAMA TICKET WOULD BE PRETTY ROCKIN'.


If the republicans look strong in the midterms and look to a conservative candidate, who will they go to? Gingrich? George Allen? There seems to be no non-terrible choice. What are the chances of a Biden/McCain ticket (Biden was the one to suggest Kerry/McCain in '04),or for that matter, a McCain/Hagel ticket as an Independent Party?

NO CHANCE ON EITHER. THAT TRAIN HAS SAILED, SO TO SPEAK, FOR MCCAIN. HAGEL--HIS STEM CELL VOTE THE OTHER DAY NOTWITHSTANDING--WOULD BE MY FIRST CHOICE AMONG THE REPUBLICANS, SO THERE'S LITTLE CHANCE HE COULD WIN. INDEPENDENT THINKING AND RESPECT FOR THE OTHER SIDE ARE NOT HOW YOU WIN AS A MODERN REPUBLICAN WITH PRESIDENTIAL ASPIRATIONS. THEY'LL STAY IN THE BUSH STRAITJACKET BECAUSE THEY'VE INVESTED TOO MUCH TO DEVIATE FOR 2008. (2012 AND BEYOND WILL THE ELECTIONS IN WHICH SOME SOUTHERN-FRIED KHRUSCHEV "DENOUNCES" BUSH'S LEGACY AS NIKITA DID STALIN'S; YOU CAN'T LIE TO HISTORY FOREVER, AND BUSH IS SCREWING US IN WAYS THAT WILL TAKE DECADES TO BOUNCE BACK FROM.)

I HAVE NO IDEA WHO THEY'LL NOMINATE. HOPEFULLY THEY'LL SPLIT, WITH MAINSTREAM-ISH REPUBLICANS NOMINATING ONE OF THE THREE FORNICATORS (MCCAIN, GIULIANI, GINGRICH--ALL ADULTERERS) AND THE SNAKE-HANDLING FREAKS LEAVING THE PARTY TO NOMINATE SAM BROWNSHIRT--I MEAN, BROWNBACK.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Anti-Poverty in NYC: I Want to Believe
Because I don't get the print copy of the New York Times every day, sometimes I miss things I really, from a professional responsibility standpoint, should have read. So it was Monday with this article, which a colleague--my supervisor, actually--mentioned to me at the Yankee game that night. The piece had little actual news to it; a more descriptive title might have been "Group Continues to Meet and Deliberate." But its content does give me a little hope, for the first time, that Mayor Bloomberg's Commission on Economic Opportunity might accomplish something beyond briefly focusing the attention of a thin slice of the public on the seemingly intractable problems of the city's poor.

First a little background, for those who don't know. (And don't feel bad: the administration has imposed a virtual press blackout on this group since before its Commissioners were even announced, probably as a way of keeping expectations low and reducing outside pressures. Pretty shrewd.) Bloomberg won re-election last year despite a theme of criticism that NYC during his first term had been a much more congenial place for those with greater means than those with less. Indeed, the percentage of statistically poor New Yorkers (those in families earning under the federally set poverty standard--itself a horribly inadequate tool for measuring material want; a better one is the Self-Sufficiency Standard) grew during the last few years, while it shrank in many other large U.S. cities. The criticism never seriously imperiled Bloomberg's chances, partly because the fact of rising poverty didn't really stick to the mayor himself and partly because opponent Freddie Ferrer so clearly had no idea how to actually improve the situation, but it must have bothered the mayor--and the rumor I heard was that various parties extracted a promise for him to create this Commission as a response to the problem.

Bloomberg did so in a typically thoughtful way. His two co-chairs are Richard D. Parsons, chair of Time Warner and arguably the most successful African-American businessman in the country, and Geoff Canada, a street thug turned non-profit superhero whose Harlem Children's Zone is itself one of the most ambitious and comprehensive anti-poverty efforts ever launched. The 32 other Commissioners are, as the Times article says, "drawn from the upper echelons of New York City’s business, nonprofit, academic and social services sectors." The ones I know, or know of, are all exceptionally talented and dedicated. The mayor then put his newly minted Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, a woman with near-universal respect in her orbit, in charge of staffing and administering the whole project, and made it clear to all city agencies that they had to be on board. I can't over-emphasize how important this last point is; turf instincts and bureaucratic foot-dragging can very easily scuttle something like this.

Finally, he put some constraints on the conversation: again quoting the article, "Mr. Bloomberg has charged the commission with finding ways to diminish or eradicate poverty without significantly increasing the size or cost of government." A lot of my friends and colleagues who have participated in the discussions (I was invited to attend two sessions last month, but couldn't go because of deadlines) found this caveat enormously constraining at first--but it was probably necessary to control for the regrettable liberal instinct to attack deep-seated social problems wallet-first. Sotto voce, it's been said that some new spending might happen, which further suggests to me that this was a deliberate framing choice.

So what did they come up with? Specific recommendations aren't due for awhile yet, but the conversation seems to be going in a direction I would have hoped for, but didn't expect:

[T]he thinking... has narrowed to a central notion: the solution to poverty is employment. But in a twist on the welfare-to-work policies of former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, the group has agreed that the government must use more of its resources to foster conditions that allow people to enter the work force and stay in it.

To achieve that goal, the commission has been looking at ways to increase access to child care so parents can hold on to their jobs. It has also been devising ways to use city resources to tailor training programs to an ever-changing job market, and to focus public schools on preparing students not only for college, but also for the workplace. The approach departs from the welfare-based strategies of previous generations, but emphasizes government’s role in making employment worthwhile for the poor.

“It’s not about pumping public benefits into households in order that they can have disposable income,” said Linda I. Gibbs, the deputy mayor for health and human services, who is overseeing the commission. Rather, she said, the focus is “what can we do to direct investments in poor households in a way that improves their earning capacity.”

Damn right. Unlike many of my colleagues, I've never really had a problem with the foundational premise of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which eliminated the entitlement to assistance. Work is a core value of our society; we should honor it, and it's fair that we hold it out as a condition of assistance. But we also have to reward it. I'm currently writing a piece for the Joyce Foundation on the tenth anniversary of welfare reform, and how it's played out in the Midwest (where Joyce does its grantmaking). The results are pretty unambiguous: welfare rolls went down everywhere, but a discouragingly small percentage of those who made the jump from welfare to work actually escaped poverty.

Why? Two main reasons, both of which the NYC Commission seems to appreciate. First, their jobs just didn't pay well. By and large, the public assistance population then--and even more so now--didn't have a lot of education or employable skill. Economists talk about a "reservation wage," what some people not working at any given time would have to make before they'd take a job. People tend to be rational about their economic choices; pre-1996, welfare was often literally a better deal for those people than working for $3.35 an hour or whatever the minimum was then--especially because they lost almost a dollar of welfare for every dollar they earned working, as well as eligibility for benefits like health care. (Back then, you lost Medicaid if you started working.)

After '96, the incentives were changed; you couldn't stay on welfare forever, and in most states you could keep drawing some assistance and your (and your kids') benefits while starting work. But the pay still sucked. The welfare reform law pushed millions of new, mostly unskilled jobseekers into the labor market just as the economy was increasingly rewarding education and training--but its provisions made relatively little allowance for participants to gain the credentials and knowledge that would provide them greater earning power. (I also think the glut of new entrants depressed wages for low-skill workers already in that labor market, but that's just a theory.) Most states adopted what was called a "Work First" approach, but a better name would have been "Work First, Last and Only." And this despite a lot of research showing that a "mixed model," featuring both work and skill attainment, was by far the most effective in reducing poverty.

The second reason is that even when former welfare recipients got jobs, other issues in their lives constantly imperiled their ability to keep those jobs. Childcare, physical and mental health, housing, transportation--all the sorts of things that middle-class and wealthy working families can deal with because of their greater resources--played havoc with the employment of these workers. Government programs exist to help people handle all these sets of issues--but many are too small to meet the need, and often low-income workers aren't aware of them or can't access them. The challenge is to bring all those resources to bear in hopes of giving these workers the tools to handle their problems.

In making notes for this Joyce project, the idea came to me that for the nation as a whole, welfare reform was a conservative success, because it so dramatically cut the rolls, but a liberal failure, because it didn't lift all that many people out of poverty. The problem of course is that there was no clear consensus on what it was supposed to do: no single goal was defined. The NYC Commission does have a clear goal: to reduce poverty. The strategy by which it evidently means to do this is work. And its members seem to grasp that you can only do this by connecting work to opportunity and offering it with a measure of security. There are still a million places where this can and maybe will fall to pieces--but just that they've gotten this far is pretty exciting.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Economy: it's Subjective, Stupid

Update, 7/17: I made a change in the second graf after the long quote to fix what had been an embarrassing calculation mistake; thanks to "Mathlete in Manhattan" for the tip. Also, did anyone else notice that Krugman wrote basically the same piece in Friday's NYT? I'm calling my attorney.

Interesting piece in the Times today about New York City's economic recovery--I'm tempted to use the Sarcasm Quotes, but won't--since 9/11. The story title, "Report Shows Quick Growth in New York Since 9/11," seems at odds with the substance of the article:

New York City’s economy bounced back after Sept. 11 with surprising speed and is much healthier now than its slow-growing job market indicates, according to a report released yesterday by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Labor market data shows that there are 100,000 fewer private-sector jobs in the city than there were five years ago. But the report, which offers an analysis of the economic effects of 9/11 over the past five years, showed that the city has been recovering at least as fast as the nation by other measures. Most notably, average incomes have been rising faster for city residents than for other Americans, it states.
...
“People keep asking, why are we 100,000 short of this last peak?” said Jason Bram, a Fed economist and a co-author of the report. “What’s surprising is not how low it is now, but how high it was in 2001.”

Mr. Bram said that at the rate the city was creating jobs, it would take another 18 months to recover the rest of the 225,000 jobs lost between early 2001 and the second half of 2003. But he said his analysis showed that the job market was no weaker now than it would have been had the attacks never happened.
...
[But] James A. Parrott, chief economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute, a liberal watchdog group, said most of the income gains have gone to wealthier residents, and have not been shared by the typical city worker. He said that the average overall income increase masks the fact that hourly wages of most residents have been declining since 2002, when adjusted for inflation.

“If you look at family costs and energy costs and the cost of health care, I’d be hard-pressed to make the case that real living standards are rising for average New Yorkers,” Mr. Parrott said. “The polarization trend if anything is more pronounced in New York City than it is nationwide.”
...
Mr. Bram acknowledged that other economists and analysts “have this perception that all the growth is in the high end.” But he said he believed a lot of the job losses had been incurred in low-paying industries like apparel and other manufacturing and that much of the gains had come in the middle of the job spectrum, especially among the self-employed and small businesses.

I know Jason Bram a little bit, and Jim Parrott a bit better. They're both good economists, extremely smart and very rigorous in terms of methodology. Maybe their discrepancy here has to do with their institutional affiliations; the Fed looks at aggregate numbers and makes normative judgments accordingly, while FPI focuses on the middle class and working class. (Full disclosure: FPI also shares office space with one of my freelance clients, the NYC Employment and Training Coalition.)

So maybe it's my own bias, but I think Jim is closer to the mark here. This reads to me (and I haven't seen Jason's report in itself) like the argument over the U.S. economy during the Bush years writ small. One side says, "Hey, we're growing! GDP is up, profits are up, everything's super-terrific!" The other says, "If one guy is making $100 more and five guys are making $19.99 less, that's growth in an aggregate sense, but more people are worse off." Locally and nationally, there's little doubt that the already well-off have done very, very well over the last few years. Everyone else, though, not so much. (Here's a look from FPI and Citizens for Tax Justice at the other side of the story, tax cuts and public debt obligations. This report from the Community Service Society of New York found that, while employment is indeed up, wages aren't: in constant dollars, workers at the 50th percentile of the income distribution were making about $12 less per week in 2005 than they did in 2000, a 2 percent drop. At the 75th percentile, workers earned about $5 more in constant dollars, for anemic 0.5 percent real wage growth.

Allow me to offer a non-academic view: that sucks, especially in a context of overall economic growth.

One of the few things I remember from college PoliSci was that tradtionally, any year in which Gross Domestic Product increases by more than four percent is a guaranteed political winner for the party in power. In the first quarter of 2006, the revised annual growth rate was 5.6 percent, which is spectacular in historic terms. But public opinion consistently gives President Bush and the congressional Republicans low grades on their economic stewardship. Why? For the same reason Jim Parrott disagrees with Jason Bram: because those not part of Bush's "base," or those you'd expect to be in that group based on their earnings, aren't feeling it. When a working family can't pay the bills or put something away or take a vacation, a chart showing robust aggregate growth doesn't much convince them that times are flush.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Where is my Mind?
A couple salutary links while waiting for some of my more substantial post-seedlings to blossom...

  • While I think the Phillies blog I'm involved with does a pretty solid job of analysis--and this year, helping maintain it has given me a metaphorical taste of police forensic work; this is as close as I ever hope to get to determining cause of death--there is, after all, more to life, even more to baseball, than figuring out who should get traded, who should stay, and whether Bill Dancy's third-base coaching idiocy is innate or learned. So I have to commend my new favorite (maybe that isn't quite the word) Phillies blog: I Love Misery. It's acidic balm for the Phils phan soul.

  • Whatever your opinion of the '60s, psychedelic drugs, or the cultural trends of that time, you really need to check out this New Yorker review, a few weeks old now, of a recent biography on Timothy Leary. Louis Menand, a pretty damn fine writer himself, does what I imagine is a far better job of telling Leary's story than does the biographer. And what a story: this guy was, apparently, a first-class schmuck who was married more times than Rush Limbaugh, cheated on all of them, was an awful dad to his maladjusted kids (who came to tragic ends), and eventually sold out his friends and allies to save his own ass and pal around with William Buckley and G. Gordon Liddy.

    Menand notes how the established Leary myth--of an educator and researcher who, Buddha-like, left the safe world of academia to pursue deeper knowledge and enlightenment--masks an uglier, but probably more interesting, truth. As a psychologist-turned-proselytizer for alternative lifestyles, Leary was always in one priesthood or another, but his sermonizing was strictly toward worldly ends:

    Leary spent the first part of his career doing normative psychology, the work of assessment, measurement, and control; he spent the second as one of the leading proselytizers of alternative psychology, the pop psychology of consciousness expansion and nonconformity. But one enterprise was the flip side of the other, and Greenfield’s conclusion, somewhat sorrowfully reached, is that Leary was never serious about either. The only things Leary was serious about were pleasure and renown. He underwent no fundamental transformation when he left the academic world for the counterculture. He liked women, he liked being the center of attention, and he liked to get high. He simply changed the means of intoxication.

    Leary's genius was more Malcolm McLaren than Aldous Huxley: he was, at core, a self-interested self-promoter. That there was a dash of messianism mixed into his monumental self-regard really just contributed to a lot of destroyed lives among people he never met. As the 1960s recede further into the past and a clearer historical picture emerges of the time, I expect we'll see a more judicious sorting of the heroic from the moronic. This account doesn't leave much doubt where Leary sits in that judgment.
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