Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Unhappy Anniversary
Today marks one year since Hurricane Katrina struck. Frank Rich and others have beaten the drum on the politics of this story, but to me the more interesting and relevant question is how the nation's governing conservatives have actually responded to the challenge of rebuilding much of a major city in a way that's both resource-efficient and considerate of (though not necessarily deferential to) community sentiment.

If ever a situation demanded "competence, not ideology" from the federal government, the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast would seem to be it. But without absolving city and state of their richly deserved share of blame--nobody ever pointed to New Orleans or the state of Louisiana as shining beacons of good government--thus far, it's tough to give the federal response positive marks. According to this report (and trying to filter out the excessive lefty ideological trappings that adorn anything Robert Borosage gets involved with), approximately half of all bus and street car routes are up and running, but only 17 percent of buses are in use; unemployment is much higher than either pre-Katrina or the overall state and national averages; and by December 2005, of the 28,540 loan applications received by the federal Small Business Administration from the Gulf Coast, only 10 percent had been processed and just three percent had been approved. As of May 2006, SBA had denied approximately 11,500 Louisiana loan applications and approved about 11,400, but had distributed only 4,200 checks. This more robust set of indications from the Brookings Institution notes that "[g]as and electricity service is reaching only 41 and 60 percent of the pre-Katrina customer base, respectively." (As in Baghdad, so on Bourbon Street?)

Clearly, competence has been a problem with the recovery effort. But so has ideology:

Bush 43 governs under the considerable shadow of conservative icon Ronald Reagan, who famously said in his 2001 inauguration speech, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Bush 43’s inept embrace of Reagan’s maxim has resulted in the literally deadly combination of negligent government and record government debt. The negligence continues to hamper the effort to repair New Orleans and other Katrina-damaged communities. The debt, a product of the billions poured into the Iraq misadventure and wrongheaded tax cuts, drains capital-—both financial and political—-away from housing, education and other pressing needs. But, perhaps most importantly, the conservative ideology that says we are not each others’ keeper—and yet applauds as government fiercely defends the interests of those who have the most—has brought us to where we are today: To a Gulf Coast where the old inequities of race and class have been amplified in the year since the storm.

It is that ideology, it is worth recalling, that helped drive the key decision to downgrade the Federal Emergency Management Agency from a highly praised, Cabinet-level organization to a backwater operation buried inside the labyrinthine Department of Homeland Security. It is an ideology that valued cronyism over expertise and put the dubiously qualified Michael D. Brown in charge. It is an ideology that put property rights and commercial prerogatives over wetlands protection in the Mississippi Delta, which led to the removal of many of the natural barriers that would protect New Orleans from the full force of a hurricane. It is an ideology that also drove many of the short-sighted funding decisions about levee construction in the years before Katrina struck—-for many conservatives only grudgingly support federal infrastructure investment-—and which today continues to value what is cheap over what is right.
...[A]n administration that is so parsimonious in the face of requests for aid to the poor appears almost nonchalant in the face of the continuing waste of billions of taxpayer dollars on such items as thousands of unused FEMA trailers in Hope, Ark., and other holding areas. The administration’s apparent unbridled faith in the private sector, its persistent cronyism and its resistance to vigorous oversight has dominated the government response to Katrina. One result, according to a report this month by House Government Operations Committee ranking member Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., has been the awarding of $8.75 billion worth of “problem contracts” in which there is evidence of waste, fraud or mismanagement.

It is true that the failures of the Hurricane Katrina recovery are not the fault of only one branch of government or of one party. But what is clear is that entrusting the reins of government to an administration which holds in utter contempt the very notion of government as a protector of the public welfare is folly. The Bush administration’s inner circle of advisors still includes Grover Norquist, the never-met-a-tax-cut-I-didn’t-like crusader who famously pledged to fight to get government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” Conservatism, it should now be plain to see, is not the answer to the problem; conservatism is the problem.

Emphasis mine. As I think I've noted here before, I don't want the Democrats to go crazy with subpoenas and hearings if they retake a House majority next year--but the one area where I want them to focus like a laser is fraud and waste, in Iraq and on the Gulf Coast. Not only would such a focus shine light on bad actors whom, I would hope, even those on the right would agree deserve shame and punishment; investigation into these matters might help make the case that this essay makes--conservatives, or at least those of the stripe currently running the government, essentially aren't interested in governing or well-suited to do the work of governing. At some point, the relationship between anti-government ideology and governing competence--or the lack of it--has to be noticed.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Po-Mo Feudalism

Okay, of course it's not really that bad. But as we commemorate the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and await new federal statistics on poverty this week (as well as the final recommendations of Mayor Bloomberg's Commission on Economic Opportunity here in NYC), some new economic numbers suggest one of the core problems:

The median hourly wage for American workers has declined 2 percent since 2003, after factoring in inflation. The drop has been especially notable, economists say, because productivity — the amount that an average worker produces in an hour and the basic wellspring of a nation’s living standards — has risen steadily over the same period.

As a result, wages and salaries now make up the lowest share of the nation’s gross domestic product since the government began recording the data in 1947, while corporate profits have climbed to their highest share since the 1960’s. UBS, the investment bank, recently described the current period as “the golden era of profitability.”

Until the last year, stagnating wages were somewhat offset by the rising value of benefits, especially health insurance, which caused overall compensation for most Americans to continue increasing. Since last summer, however, the value of workers’ benefits has also failed to keep pace with inflation, according to government data.

At the very top of the income spectrum, many workers have continued to receive raises that outpace inflation, and the gains have been large enough to keep average income and consumer spending rising.

In the American Prospect blog, Ezra Klein focuses on what the Times authors briefly reference at the end of their article: the fundamental but largely overlooked change in relative bargaining position between workers and managers over the last several decades:

The culprit here is a simple lack of bargaining power on the part of employees. The pernicious fiction that corporations will happily redirect their profits into appropriate raises and benefit increases has been widely adopted -- we're now supposed to assume that whatever Wal-Mart or UBI is paying is exactly what they should be paying, and the willingness of workers to take those jobs is proof that the compensation is adequate. That, of course, is nuts. The balance of power between worker and employer has shifted radically in the employer's favor, and while folks still need jobs, the decline of unions and the rise of conservative (and neoliberal) regimes in government have allowed corporations to set the terms. Those terms, as you'd expect, prioritize executive salaries, corporate profits, and share prices, while seeking to keep labor costs as dirt low as possible. They've succeeded.

I don't think it's quite this simple, much less reducible to basic Marxist tenets of surplus labor value and the inevitability of exploitation in capitalism. Market economies run, in large part, on faith: one tenet of that faith (which I've at times shared myself) is that business ownership and top management will see long-term value in fairly compensating their workers. Doing so, the argument follows, both helps them maximize productivity and cuts down expenses related to turnover, re-training, goldbricking, and what have you. A related point is that as long as this is the case, we're generally better off not regulating the economy, because even a more equitable distribution of profits might not be worth it if the regulation unduly shrinks the overall size of the pie.

At this point, though, it's tough to argue that things aren't out of balance. Conservatives and their fellow-travelers essentially have argued that there's nothing immoral about a state of affairs in which those at the very top take home an enormous, disproportionate share of the bounty, and that (with some obvious exceptions) those who make the most deserve the most, by nature of the opportunities they create. I suppose it's possible that those exceptions--the crooks, like Ken Lay, and the grotesquely overcompensated based on performance, like Mr. Triple-Chin Exxon CEO (seriously, given world events, profits would be crazy regardless of who held that job)--are so glaring that they overbalance the entrepreneurial goodness of the "good super-rich."

But although this view is certainly defensible (I disagree with it, but I acknowledge it's plausible), it doesn't really do much for those in the middle and below who are working just as hard but seeing their real incomes decline. It also bodes ill, of course, for the party in power that has done so much over the last 25 years to tilt the field in favor of those at the very top. The Times story also notes:

“Some people who aren’t partisans say, ‘Yes, the economy’s pretty good, so why are people so agitated and anxious?’ ” said Frank Luntz, a Republican campaign consultant. “The answer is they don’t feel it in their weekly paychecks.”

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Dear God… it all makes sense now!

One recent story I posted on The Good Phight addresses the question of whether Phils manager Charlie Manuel deserves credit for the team’s surprising push back into the playoff picture. My contention is that he does, and that in fact if they win the wild card, Manuel has a strong chance to take home Manager of the Year honors. (Not that I'd necessarily vote for him, mind you, but I think he could win based on how the BBWAA seems to handle that award.) In the comments to the article, favorably comparing Manuel to Larry Bowa, one poster added that:

Dall[a]s Green liked Bowa and I'm rapid[ly] realizing, to my dismay, Green is not the just hero/manager of the 1980 team but a big gas bag who thinks every problem with players is to solved with more practice and louder volume--a graduate of the Gen. Patton school of management.

It's hard to argue with this. Over the last few years as a "Special Adviser to the GM", Green has helped push out the door Scott Rolen, one of the most talented players in club history, and he's publicly sniped at other players and team personnel--most recently, Charlie Manuel himself. Beyond that, Green has been notorious in his career for wrecking the careers of talented young pitchers through overuse in an effort to teach them toughness. (His most famous victims were the Mets' Big Three of the mid-1990s, Jason Isringhausen, Paul Wilson and Bill Pulsipher. Also, as Yankees skipper a few years earlier, he kept Al Leiter out for over 150 pitches on a cold night in April; Leiter didn't fully recover for three seasons.) He comes off as both clueless and mean-spirited.

This comment about Green, which I entirely agree with, popped back into my head when I read the following today in an article about the Iraq War:

Convinced of his own brilliance, Rumsfeld freely substituted his often hastily formed opinions for the considered judgments of his military professionals. He placed in the most senior positions compliant yes-men, like Myers, and punished those who questioned his casually formed judgments. He enjoyed belittling his subordinates. ...His aides followed the same approach: Steve Cambone, Rumsfeld's closest aide, "jested that Rumsfeld thought the Army's problems could be solved by lining up fifty of its generals in the Pentagon and gunning them down."

Bullying, dismissive, arrogant, convinced of their own brilliance. Yes, Donald Rumsfeld is America's Dallas Green. (I suppose it follows that "missile defense" is the nation's "Big pitcher who throws high 90s but doesn't know where it's going"--you keep trying to perfect it and spending money on it until you get it right. But again, while the Phils have blown some dough over the years on bad pitchers, it's not $92 billion and counting.)

Unfortunately for the country--though I guess fortunately for the Phillies--there are two differences. Unlike Rumsfeld's weak and ignorant boss, Green's boss brings his own expertise to the question and has the stature and experience to blow off Green's bad advice and perhaps even keep a muzzle on him. (It seems likely enough to me that Gillick let his "special adviser" know to shut the fuck up after the altercation with Manuel made the papers.) And, of course, Dallas Green was involved (regardless of his contributions or lack thereof--he was most definitely there) in the greatest triumph in the history of the franchise. Rumsfeld was just there for Nixon, Ford, and of course this guy.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

While continuing to search for the time and mental toughness to flesh out an idea about why the Right is having such difficulty with Iraq--in a nutshell, it's that success there depends on "nation-building," which is itself comprised of things conservatives either don't value at all or dismiss the government role in here at home--a couple links and short thoughts:

  • My annual--for the last four years, at any rate--NFC East preview package is now live on nfl.com (though it's not yet linked from their main page--I guess that's a production decision). Propers to the editorial team there for putting a terrific headline ("The Great Wide Open") on the main piece. My only regret is that I bothered to make specific record/order of finish predictions--because I have no idea how to handicap the division, and I don't think anyone else does either.

  • Today was the tenth anniversary of President Clinton's signing into law the measure that "ended welfare as we knew it." He writes about the milestone here; some of his former staffers, and various other smart folks, weigh in here. I wrote an assessment for the Joyce Foundation that's coming out in the next edition of their quarterly newsletter, which I think is to be released in September; at some point I'll probably post the "director's cut," or some facsimile thereof, here.

  • Here's a fascinating and haunting exercise in alternative history: What if 9/11 Had Never Happened? I've never been a particularly big fan of Andrew Sullivan, but there's little question the dude can write.

Fightin' Phils back above .500, on the powers of Jamie Moyer and, um, Danny Sandoval? Tonight, all things seem possible.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

CT Primary: the Aftermath

Note: I wrote this Wednesday night, but wasn't able to post until getting home from vacation. Hopefully it holds up. This article from the American Prospect, though a couple months old, nicely captures by analogy how Democrats have been fighting under outdated rules; I'm not actually sure Lieberman deserves inclusion with an undeniably decent guy like Tom Daschle, but the two Senators were both unwilling or unable to realize how their environment had changed.

If the Lieberman defeat is any indication, the Republicans might be about to reap what they've sown over the last 25 years. Rove/DeLay polarization and relentless gerrymandering has driven most of the moderates out of politics; Lieberman is now on the same course, though his removal is a bit more directly related to the changed climate.

"Bipartisanship" only works when both sides legitimately don't want to destroy each other. Read the rhetoric, over the last quarter-century, of guys like Norquist, Abramoff (back when he was a political operative, not a crooked lobbyist), Ralph Reed, and Rove himself. They didn't want to share power with the Democrats; they wanted to wipe them out of existence.

Probably because they were in the majority for so long and saw accommodation as a basic premise of governing, it took the Democrats years and years to realize this. But they do now--and in Lieberman's case, the voters got it before the candidate did. Rahm Emanuel and Chuck Schumer aren't guys I'd want to have over for dinner--but they're exactly the guys I want leading the Democratic campaign operations.

Once this anti-Constitutional Cheney/DeLay strain of Republicanism is crushed, hopefully moderates and principled conservatives will re-emerge in their party--and then it will be safe for Democrats to let go of Al Davis politics ("just win, baby") and start looking for consensus policies again. But in the context of Rovian polarization, Lieberman looked less like a statesman than a quisling. That's why he lost.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

True Colors

Edit: Hey Marshall! Scoreboard...

One of the most fascinating things about the Lieberman/Lamont primary in Connecticut has been watching all the big machers in the country’s political firmament weigh in. From the current and former president--the first a tacit Lieberman supporter, the second a louder and prouder one--to most of the current Democratic Senate caucus, to ostensibly non-partisan "elders" like David Broder and much more partisan voices ranging in vitriol from David Brooks to Michelle Malkin, everybody's got an opinion. And it seems like the closer they are to the Washington status quo, the more they love Holy Joe.

Which brings us to Marshall Wittman, the Talleyrand of fin-de-siecle American politics and probably the loudest, most dogged champion of Lieberman.

Wittman hasn't changed the name of his Bull Moose Blog to "The Daily Lieberman," but otherwise he's on this every day, with the same lame-assed put-downs of challenger Ned Lamont ("Limousine Liberal") and his supporters ("the nutroots") that you might expect of a guy who spent years working for the Christian Coalition. Wittman has landed at every point on the political compass, but in his current incarnation he works for the Democratic Leadership Council and presents himself as an heir of Teddy Roosevelt and Scoop Jackson: progressive on domestic issues, hawkish internationally. There's a problem with this formulation, as I'll explain below, but the point in conjunction with the Lieberman campaign is that Wittman sees Joe as squarely in this tradition. That Lieberman is anything but progressive on a range of domestic issues, from the disgraceful 2005 bankruptcy legislation to his embrace of steps toward censorship and his unwillingness to call corporate malefactors to task when he had the power to do so, as a Senate committee chair in the summer of 2002, doesn't seem to bother the Moose.

But today, he went too far--and showed that he'd learned perhaps too well the lessons taught him by former colleague Ralph Reed and other purveyors of political slime. In his hatred of Markos Moulitsas, the proprietor of Daily Kos, Wittman might have left himself open to a libel suit. He wrote:

Only a few weeks ago, Lamont featured the kingpin keyboarder in a campaign ad (the same one who once made the infamous "screw 'em" comments about the American victims of terrorism).

Who were these "American victims of terrorism"? Mercenaries hired by the U.S. government, paid exponentially more than the rank-and-file soldiers... of whom Moulitsas was once one. The mercs had been rumored to be committing abuses; an Iraqi mob led by the al-Sadr forces publicly executed them. Moulitsas, in an ill-advised blog post, wrote that he had no sympathy for the mercenaries; his sympathies were with the troops.

Still, hired Blackwater killers are a pretty far cry from what comes to mind for most of us when the phrase "American victims of terrorism" is used. It's a smear based on blurring facts together that might make Karl Rove rub his pudgy little hands together in delight.

This isn't a DLC thing. Wittman's colleague Ed Kilgore, who blogs as New Donkey, has written a series of insightful posts on the CT Senate race; see this one and especially this one, in which Kilgore defends Lieberman but concedes that

Much as I stubbornly admire Joe Lieberman, it's clear he is a clumsy politician who lives in the pre-Karl-Rove atmosphere that permitted genuine bipartisanship. The Clinton New Democrat tradition in the party would survive his defeat.

No, it's Wittman. Maybe he shouldn't be blamed; he's achieved his greatest renown in a period when quisling Democrats like Lieberman were the norm, forever reaching out to close the gap between themselves and a Republican majority tacking hard right. Like Wittman himself, Lieberman seems to believe that his integrity and statesmanship transcends partisan politics; as I wrote a week or two back, that's a theoretically appealing notion--but it's simply not possible in the current Rovian context.

What's strange to me is that Wittman hearkens back to that pre-1968 Democratic model--progressive at home, hawkish abroad--and puts himself in the tradition of leading lights from that time, guys like George Meany. But he never takes into account that some of the most salient issues today--the social "values" shit that he and his Christian Coalition colleagues did so much to poisonously insert into our discourse--simply weren't on the table back then. At the same time, he blasts "the nutroots" as the heirs of the liberal activists who derailed the Democratic coalition that had dominated from FDR's day through LBJ's as "McGovernites with modems."

I happen to know a fair amount about those earlier-generation liberal activists; there are some similarities, but there's also a hugely important difference. Back then, the protest often took the form of demands for greater deference to this or that interest group--with the result that "the majority," white middle-class and working-class Americans, eventually turned away from the Democrats as an amalgam of special-interest pleaders. Today, it's the Lieberman wing of the party that wants to keep pandering to the special interests, appealing to abortion-rights groups, environmentalists, African-Americans and so on with a list of what he and they have done for those groups... and the activists who want the party to advance a more coherent progressive vision. Were Wittman the acute observer of politics he claims to be, and not an ultimate Washington insider who will always acclimate himself to whoever's currently buttering his bread, perhaps he'd understand this.

Anyway, the Bull Moose is gone from the AIS blogroll. But check out The Inclusionist, a new domestic policy blog I found populated by former Clinton administration adviser Margy Waller and a bunch of her friends. Truly good stuff.