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Kai Wright | The Nation

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Kai Wright

Kai Wright

The Inherent Self-Destruction of Government-vs.-the People Ideology

It is sad that in the wake of this weekend's horrific violence, we begin an absurd debate over whether Sarah Palin pointed her rhetorical crosshairs at Rep. Gabrielle Giffords as gun sights or "surveyors symbols," as her spokesperson now suggests. It doesn't matter. 

Jared Loughner's alleged "assassination" attempt should force far broader questions than the semantics of Palin's hate speech; the right has always preferred that sort of narrowed public discourse about its divisiveness. Rather, the bloodbath in Arizona should give us pause about the enemy-in-our-midst perspective from which the right has both politicked and governed for decades. It's apparent that Loughner is a troubled young man. But it's also clear that the right's ongoing antigovernment crusade became destructive long before he fired into a crowd with his legally purchased semiautomatic hand gun.

"Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem," Ronald Reagan famously declared in his first inaugural address. He sought to explain the crippling economic downturn, to which many have compared our recent recession, but he spoke more broadly than economics. He warned that "we the people" must fight government's "intervention and intrusion in our lives" at all points. "It is time to check and reverse the growth of government, which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed."

The great communicator was careful to define his government-vs.-the people perspective as a bizarre sort of unity. He scoffed that "we hear much of special interests" before declaring that we must rally across sectional and racial lines to defeat our own representative government. But the unmistakable implication was that government had been hijacked by those evil "special interests," something which others called civil rights.

Sarah Palin's less subtle us-versus-them politics—which she and others have peddled to great profit—are the emotional and intellectual heirs to this notion. Her warnings that there are those in government who don't represent the "real America" offer a more blunt explanation than Reagan's for why government is the problem. Sharon Angle's "Second Amendment remedies" to mythical threats like the onset of Sharia law offer a more wild-eyed solution than the conservative establishment, but it is born of the same perspective: that our government has been corrupted into an enemy of the people, and we must destroy it to save our nation.

The overt violence these ideas stir didn't start Saturday. Before Giffords ever cast the healthcare reform vote that drew her into Palin's sites, the threats of the Tea Party mobs that filled her campaign rallies had taken life on the steps of the Capitol. They spat at Rep. Emanuel Cleaver and other black Congressmembers, hurled homophobic slurs at Rep. Barney Frank, phoned in graphic threats to several members and vandalized a number of their homes and offices, including Giffords's. 

Nor has the violence been limited to elected officials. Mosques are vandalized and Muslim Americans threatened. Reports of hate crimes against Latinos are on the rise. Good luck and the keen eyed policing of a California state trooper is all that prevented mass murder at the Tides Foundation last summer. This weekend, luck ran out.

All of this violence is horrific and worsening, to be sure. But the right's enemy-in-our-midst politics inflicts a broader destruction on the nation, too. Antigovernment zeal has taken a toll that can be measured in tens of thousands of lives. 

It is this perspective, for instance, that left the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the hands of political hacks who were unprepared to respond as thousands clung to life in Katrina's flood waters. It is this perspective that makes a safe and healthy food chain an impossibility in America, leading to all manner of preventable deaths. It is this perspective that gutted regulatory structures so crooks could peddle predatory loans to consumers and investors alike, creating a global financial collapse. It is this perspective that has left millions of kids hungry and poor while now Speaker John Boehner leads Tea Party–inspired recitations of the Constitution and newly minted Homeland Security Chair Peter King vows terrorism witch hunts on Muslim Americans. And it is this perspective that stripped down gun laws such that Jared Loughner could buy a semiautomatic weapon to kill a federal judge, among others.

The question is not whether Palin's rhetoric has gone too far; plainly it has. The question is whether the right's government-vs.-the people ideology has reached its natural climax: a government that cannot function enough to keep us safe and a nation defined by anger at itself. At what point will that be understood for the self-destruction that it is?

Cross-posted at Colorlines.com.

 
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Obama's Bizarre Celebration of a Slave Republic's 'Compromises'

President Obama has likely made more enemies than friends in his effort to sell the Republicans' tax cut for the rich in the last couple of days. Fellow Democrats and progressive commenters alike are buzzing over his "sanctimonious" remark, among other attempts to position himself as Washington's only adult. But in the effort to further cement his reputation as the great compromiser, he made a far more offensive remark yesterday that reveals just how much he seems to misunderstand about leadership in tough times.

Just after calling his fellow Democrats sanctimonious for defending a core principle they've campaigned on for a decade, the president proceeded to tick off examples of principled compromises in American history—FDR taking what he could get on Social Security, LBJ starting small with Medicare. Then he made this stunning remark:

This country was founded on compromise. I couldn't go through the front door at this country's founding. And if we were really thinking about ideal positions, we wouldn't have a union.

Mr. President, WTF?! Which one of the "compromises" that allowed a slave republic to endure from more than a century is he celebrating here? Perhaps the one where black people were counted as a fraction of humans in order to preserve a balance of power that allowed Northern and Southern aristocrats alike to get rich off of murderous slave labor? No, we wouldn't have had a union without that. Or maybe he's pitching forward to the "compromises" of the post-Reconstruction era, when the white capitalists of the North got too spooked by white laborers' demands for reasonable wages, and so abandoned the promises of Emancipation. That, too, kept the union plowing forward—into another century of apartheid and state-sanctioned terrorism.

President Obama literally rode into Washington draping himself in historical comparison to Abe Lincoln—whistle-stop train ride and all. But he deeply misunderstands the man he imitated. The fact of the matter is that the only reason the president can "go through the front door" now is that at key points in history important leaders did, in fact, stand up for ideal positions. It was not compromise but rather a long, bloody war that ultimately preserved the union he now leads.

It's maddening to watch a president give in so easily on a matter of such importance in the middle of this brutal economy. But it's plain offensive to hear him spin that crass decision in grand historical terms that he either misunderstands or deliberately distorts. Sell this disastrous policy if you wish, Mr. President, but leave the deadly battle to make this country live up to the ideals it professes out of it.

Cross-posted at ColorLines.com

 
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In Defense of Government

The distance between reality and Capitol Hill has rarely felt so large as it does this week. It reaches about as far as the unemployment lines that are stretching across cities and states, where everyone from governors to college kids await congressional leadership on jobs. That’s a gulf of 15 million people, 2 million of whom will lose their jobless benefits by the New Year if Republicans don’t get their deficit-building tax cut for the richest Americans. Any discussion about a meaningful job-creation effort is at this point a distant memory. 

Republicans and conservative Democrats have said they’re being responsible adults. Jobless benefits and stimulus efforts have to be paid for. The government, like most families, must balance its books. “I agree that they need help,” Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown insisted on the Senate floor last week. “But I look at it as: Are we going to do it from the bank account, or are we going to put it on the credit card?” The millions who’ve been out of work for more than six months probably have access to neither resource, actually.

Brown would do better to direct his tough talk at families earning more than $250,000 a year, who will keep their Bush-era tax breaks if the deal the White House has reportedly brokered with Senate Republicans holds. Last year, a record 44 million people lived below the poverty line, which is $22,000 for a family of four. Purported fiscal conservatives say we cannot afford to help them by even maintaining a robust food stamp program, let alone with a second stimulus. But we can afford to give away trillions to a handful of people. By 2050 the Bush tax cuts will have added an amount to the deficit that is equivalent to 100 percent of the GDP.

But these are tedious details, and the debate on Capitol Hill this week is about something more—a larger fight to which Republicans eagerly rise, and from which the president continues to shrink. It’s a fight over whether government is a force for good or evil in America. That’s a strange debate for a republic, but it’s one that has defined ours since slavery. And it’s one that those of us who have benefited from government’s role as the great equalizer have been losing badly since around about 1980. 

Perhaps the most exciting thing about Barack Obama of 2008 was his potential to alter that trajectory and restore government’s good name; the most disappointing thing about Obama of 2010 may well be his failure to even try. From green jobs to healthcare, he once spoke passionately of government’s vital role in rebuilding the economy. If ever there was a time for him to regain that voice, it is now.  

As Paul Krugman wrote this weekend, if Republicans get the permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts they’re playing for—whether it comes now or in two years—the only way our government will be able to make up the cost is to mutilate Social Security and Medicare. The GOP leadership knows this. Its goal isn’t just to give money to rich people; it’s to kill government’s role as an economic safety net and equalizer. The Reagan revolution is reaching its grim climax. 

At the same time, the antigovernment crowd’s political hand—if forced—has never been weaker (as John Nichols persuasively wrote this morning). A depressingly large number of middle-class and working-class Americans now know all too well what economists have long understood: you get a great deal more economic bang out of keeping lots of people from becoming destitute than you do by helping a few people horde wealth. People remain enraged about the no-strings-attached bank bailout, for instance, because they intuitively understand its ramifications. Wall Street is now enjoying a narrow, taxpayer-financed recovery while unemployment, hunger and poverty all continue climbing through the former middle class. 

Obama certainly inherited the mess of the bailout. But the jobs crisis offers him an ideal opportunity to rewrite his economic and political profile by articulating why a progressive vision for government matters to everyone. The Republican leadership’s ideological purity on tax cuts for the wealthy make it a perfect foil. 

The research is plain on one thing: unemployment benefits specifically and government spending broadly both stimulate consumer demand and, as a consequence, help create jobs. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the Recovery Act had created as many as 3.6 million jobs as of September. When working people get new money they spend it on things they’ve been doing without—food, clothes, transportation and, yes, consumer goods. Tax cuts for the wealthy, on the other hand, generate only more wealth for those handful of people. Much has been written on these facts already. 

The White House has even talked about them. But what it hasn’t done is court political conflict in order to focus Americans on the fundamental divide between the GOP’s view of government and that of most voters. Obama and the Democrats were wise to demand that middle-class tax cuts be separated out from those for the wealthy. Now Obama must have the courage of his supporters’ convictions on the matter. He should insist we have it out, here and now, on the question of government. No compromises—at least not before a good, strong public debate on the matter. 

Pundits are fond of looking to history’s great presidents—and its disastrous ones—for insight on Obama’s political choices. In this moment, we needn’t look further back than Bill Clinton’s 1995 holiday showdown over government. He arguably saved his presidency by elevating an annual budget fight into a larger war over what our republic stands for. 

Our fragile economy could hardly stomach a government shutdown of that sort today. But that’s all the more reason the president would do well—for himself and for the nation—to refuse to back down as Republicans hold jobless benefits hostage to government-destroying tax cuts for the wealthy. If he caves in to their political blackmail now, he’s in for a long, hard two years (including a Clintonesque shutdown battle when health care funding comes up). And if that grueling period ends in a permanent extension of George W. Bush’s reckless tax cuts, the future of American government looks bleaker still. 

Cross-posted at ColorLines.com

 
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Economy, Not Health Care or Deficits, Drove Midterm Vote

Just weeks after his election, President Obama articulated how he understood his mandate. In defending his decision to tap Wall Street insiders to fix Wall Street, the president-elect declared himself the embodiment of change. "It comes from me," he insisted. Well, now Obama's got his chance to show and prove. Because if there will be any real economic reform in the next two years, it will come through the president using his administrative authority and bully pulpit. And if he fails to wield that power, his own job will likely be on the line in 2012.

It turns out 2008 was a pretty conventional election: voters united to reject the party of a terribly unpopular president amid a worsening economy and a frustratingly endless war. Breathless punditry aside, this week'’s Republican "tsunami" is similarly textbook politics: voters united around, well, the same frustrations they had two years ago.

This stuff is basic. Unemployment remains stuck at nearly 10 percent, and if you count the people who are working part-time jobs or who have given up the ghost of work altogether, it's much higher. Never mind all the people toiling away in multiple jobs to make ends meet, or working longer hours for less money. The economy may be "growing," but it's a fake growth that’s relevant to real people only in that it's happening on their backs—companies are getting more for less out of both workers and consumers. As long as that's the status quo, whoever's in charge will be unpopular.

Republicans understood this fact from the jump. They did little to conceal their two-part playbook: stand united against any effort Democrats propose for getting people back to work and rally the base with baldly xenophobic appeals. The strategy was as successful as it was irresponsible. In exit polling, more than four out of ten voters identified themselves as conservative; nearly a quarter were over 65 and four out of five were white. So the Republican base came out, as expected, and the independents who voted did so in disgust for those in charge. Independents voted for House Republicans by a whopping 15 percent margin; in 2008, Obama had won them by 8 percent.

Republicans kept their obstructionist word and got their base’s support for doing so. The White House should listen now as the GOP promises more of the same. "I will never let you down," incoming House Speaker John Boehner promised an Ohio tea party gathering. "Across the country right now, we are witnessing a repudiation of Washington, a repudiation of big government," he added in last night's victory speech.

Boehner's wrong about what voters have repudiated, and his party's primary accomplishment this election is having made its precarious dance with the tea party all the more dangerous. Voters who identified themselves as "moderates" stuck by Democrats—there just weren't enough of them at the polls. And the independents who pushed Republicans over the top weren't nearly as interested in supporting the GOP's empty ideas as they were in rejecting the president’s leadership.

Exit polls showed that voters across the political spectrum cast ballots based on the economy. Not healthcare reform or the deficit or immigration or any of the GOP’s favorite tropes, but the economy. Two out of three voters said the economy was their most important concern. Nearly nine out of ten said it was in bad shape and getting worse; more than 30 percent said someone in their household lost a job in the past two years. Independents and the Democratic base are both looking for someone to fight back against the banks that created this mess. Obama hasn't done it and they abandoned his party as a result.

Here's a telling stat: half of the House's conservative Blue Dog Democrats—a coalition formed out of fear the party had drifted too far left—lost last night, according to the Huffington Post's Amanda Terkel. Meanwhile, in economically devastated Toledo, Ohio, progressive Democrat Marcy Kaptur kept her seat as Democrats around the state fell. Kaptur has been one of the loudest voices in Washington demanding Wall Street accountability and real foreclosure relief. (Alongside Florida's one-term firebrand Rep. Alan Grayson, who got clobbered after calling his even-tempered Republican opponent "Taliban Dan.")

And more telling stats: While a majority of this week's voters agreed government is "doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals," previous polls have shown it’s important to dig deeper into that question. A Project Vote survey this summer, for instance, similarly found large numbers who said government spends too much money. But on what? Huge majorities said it should spend less on war and on bailing out banks and corporations, while spending more on public education, public works projects and stopping foreclosures.

Neither Obama's rhetoric nor his long list of big-ticket initiatives match up with these desires. Starting with the too-small stimulus of 2009 and running through to the too-weak Wall Street reform of 2010, the White House marched Congress and voters alike through deeply difficult debates that produced little tangible reform. Obama would have been better served picking one principled fight and standing behind it, win or lose. As it is, he's spent two years apologizing for his enemies and putting himself between the people and the banks—while neither creating jobs nor saving homes in the end.

Wall Street even handed the Democrats a perfect campaign-closing story in its foreclosure-fraud scandal. But rather than vowing to stand up for homeowners, the president refused to act and declared himself wary of "wasting that money on folks who don't deserve help." This argument—that we can't save those who banks cheated for fear of helping speculators and irresponsible borrowers—put the president in lock step with his predecessor.

And that's the Democrats' problem. The kinda-sorta reforms they've passed under Obama's leadership don't nearly measure up to the massive challenges we face. Poverty is at record levels. Hunger is at record levels. Millions have lost their homes. Unemployment is in double digits among African-Americans, and at Depression levels among the black young people who drove 2008's remarkable youth vote. Pundits asked what happened to those young and black voters yesterday. But how much more can we ask of them? If Obama wants their support, he'll need to fight for them with the same vigor that he pursues comity with Republicans and bankers.

The president's not off to a good start on that score. In today's speech, he's widely expected to continue his Republican outreach. And after the "professional left" of organized labor rallied to support Democrats, despite the White House's open hostility, Obama's first post-election act will be a ten-day trip abroad to sign free trade agreements.

The question he’ll face when he returns is simple: Whose side is he on? If he’s the embodiment of reform that he professes to be, he’ll show it by wielding the power he already has to fix things without Congress. He can freeze foreclosures and force meaningful loan modifications tomorrow. He can end his record-breaking pace of deportations tomorrow. He can truly empower the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to do its job and stop financial predation. He can stop supporting "don't ask, don't tell" and quit bullying states into testing-obsessed school reform. He can stop acting like he doesn't hear the right’s chorus of hate and use his bully pulpit to articulate a different set of American values.

Yes, he can do all these things. He’s got two years to correct the course that led his party to its bleak November 3 morning. Of course, that's two years more time than millions of struggling families have before the bottom falls out. So here's hoping Obama learned that much at least during his recent listening tour through America’s backyards—and that he will finally start to lead for the people who put him in office.

Jobs and Income Data Add Up to an Historically Unequal Future

It’s bad enough that Washington has done so little to create jobs. Now, we learn that lawmakers’ refusal to act is actively worsening the crisis.

According to the Labor Department, we lost another 95,000 jobs in September. Private sector jobs actually increased, if only slightly. But that slow improvement was overwhelmed by the fact that the public sector is shedding tens of thousands of jobs as Congress refuses to act. Last month, struggling state and local governments alone cut 83,000 jobs—a shocking 58,000 of them in education. Welcome back to school, kids, we’ve laid off all your educators.

As the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein points out, these losses were plainly unnecessary and a direct result of Congress’s misplaced obsession with controlling debt. One economist after another has said that in a jobs crisis like this one, the first priority is to stimulate employment—something government spending is uniquely capable of doing. Yes, reducing the deficit is an important long-term goal, but you’re not going to get anywhere with record-high joblessness. (Not to mention the real drivers of tax cuts, war spending and healthcare costs.) Klein writes: "Consider this: If we only counted private-sector jobs, we’d have had positive jobs reports for the last nine months. As it is, public-sector losses have wiped out private-sector gains for the past four months."

The tragedy of this bears repeating: millions of people are struggling, but GOP obstruction and Democratic timidity have conspired to make the government a net drain on the job market. Remarkable. By refusing to help close state budget holes, let alone launch new national jobs programs, lawmakers have accelerated the problem. Indeed, before going on recess, Congress allowed the sole meaningful jobs program we had to expire.

The 2009 stimulus was important; it helped a few million working- and middle-class families avoid falling into poverty. But the ranks of those living below the poverty line have grown to a record 44 million, and counting. Last week we learned that the gap between the rich and everyone else had also reached record levels. The top fifth of the economy took in half of all the income generated in 2009.

Here’s what all of these numbers add up to: The recession’s legacy will be an unprecedentedly imbalanced, winner-takes-all economy. The middle class has officially begun shrinking, as median income has fallen while poverty has skyrocketed and the richest people have consolidated their wealth. Not surprisingly, the trend is most striking when you break it down by race. Among African-Americans, median income dropped by more than 4 percent last year, putting black families more than $17,000 behind the overall median.

All of these economic indicators also tell a story millions of families already know, even if their elected officials don’t. The funny thing about being middle class is it’s more of a feeling than a data point. It’s feeling the economic security to start a new career, to put your kids in college without saddling them with debt, to have a baby and an ambitious job at the same time. Or, it’s knowing you’ve got enough cushion to weather a long stint of unemployment amid a historic downturn. That’s what being middle class is really all about: knowing you’ve got options.

Fewer and fewer people feel that comfort these days. The black middle class has long lived with America’s new insecurity; many only made it out of the 2001 recession by piling on bad credit that turned worse when mortgage brokers came peddling exotic refinances. But as with many things, black folks are just the most vulnerable, and thus the first to slide down the hill. Uncertainty is now the norm for all of the would-be middle class, and Washington has done next to nothing to alleviate that anxiety—indeed, today’s jobs report shows lawmakers are actively making things worse.

Which is why everybody hitting the campaign trail this fall is rightly feeling so insecure, too. Let’s hope they remember that feeling when they resume governing after November.

Cross-posted at ColorLines.com

The Poverty Nation Washington Built

The maddening thing about Beltway political culture is not its oft-maligned partisan divide but rather its ever-present consensus that tomorrow will be better, when all evidence points to the contrary. American families have been spiraling in a steady and quickening economic decline for years, a devolution that did not begin with this recession and will not soon end without massive and sustained intervention. That hard truth is as plain as the troubling reality that few in Washington are prepared to face it.

Thursday, the U.S. Census Bureau released data showing record-breaking poverty in 2009: Nearly 44 million Americans lived below the poverty line; that's more than the Census Bureau has logged in the fifty-one years it has kept track. This may have been the year's least surprising headline—such numbers grow from our political choices just as surely as night follows day.

Nor is it surprising who fared most poorly in 2009. While the overall poverty rate climbed to 14.3 percent—one in seven—more than a quarter of both African Americans and Latinos lived in poverty last year. The data for poor children is the most arresting. Nearly 36 percent of black kids and 33 percent of Latino kids were poor in 2009, as were 38.5 percent of all families headed by single moms. Stop and try to digest this data: More than a third of all black and Latino kids are growing up destitute. With numbers like that, how can we talk meaningfully about a future of any kind, let alone a better one?

It's a question the whole nation would do well to consider. Because the troubles of black and brown families are better understood as leading indicators than outliers.  

The massive job loss between 2008 and 2009—a 3.5 percent increase in unemployment--is surely the largest factor in the immediate poverty increase. But those harrowing months were neither the beginning nor the end of the problem. African Americans have been hit so hard in this recession for many reasons, but chief among them may be that black neighborhoods never emerged from the 2001 recession. Which meant they were the most vulnerable to the housing market predation that pushed the country's economy off the cliff. 

We now know banks wrote bad loans deliberately, and that regulators ignored ample real-time signs that too many of those loans were both fraudulent and likely to fail. This went on with impunity because it was just business as usual. Wall Street's demand for large, short-term profits informed banks' irresponsible lending choices long before they gorged themselves on subprime securities. Every family I've interviewed in the course of covering the housing crisis was propelled into these dangerous loans by an effort to climb out of huge credit card debt, overwhelming student loans and the many other economic trap doors banks had already built into the economy. 

As Congress has worked to close some of these traps, banks and corporations will merely open new ones. They're searching for new, inventive ways to trick customers into agreeing to huge overdraft fees and they're exploring ways to broaden the payday lending market. Insurance companies are jacking up rates in advance of reforms and credit card companies are devising ways around new consumer protections. And that's just the stuff we know about. So with the ranks of those who've been out of work for more than six months steadily lengthening, more and more families will be as vulnerable to banks' predation as black and brown families have long been.  

All of which is why the most important job in Washington may be the new consumer financial-protection watchdog created by this year's Wall Street reform bill. 

Wall Street's congressional representatives have worked hard to undermine the bureau. They successfully blocked an independent agency, so instead it will be housed inside the Federal Reserve, operating with its own budget. Importantly, the very regulators who signed off on the banks' previous bad behavior will have veto power over the new watchdog's policing efforts. So the only way it will succeed is through a strong, savvy director who has the president's ear—someone like Elizabeth Warren, who conceived and championed the new bureau, and who the banks' protectors have worked tirelessly to block. Early in the debate over the agency, Republicans went so far as to write an amendment designed expressly to prevent Warren from running it. 

President Obama is poised to nonetheless appoint Warren as the interim chief, avoiding an ugly confirmation battle. He'd be wise to go further still, but the move is nonetheless an overdue show of fight commensurate with the battle we're in. 

The White House has also responded to this week's bleak poverty report by pointing out how much bleaker it would have been without last year's stimulus act. That's true. As the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities pointed out, unemployment benefits kept another 3.3 million people from falling into poverty last year. When the bureau's statisticians figure in tax credits and food stamps later this year, they'll likely cut this week's poverty number by a few million more. 

Of course, the White House and congressional Democrats are failing to convince voters they deserve credit for this feat because it's like weathering a hurricane with an umbrella. There were already nearly 44 million people living in poverty when Congress parceled out the relative pennies of the 2009 stimulus. That number has certainly grown in 2010, as longterm employment has increased.  

Notably, the only people who have staved off poverty are seniors. While just about every other demographic group's poverty rate went up last year, seniors continued a decades-long decline, dropping to the lowest level on record. Why? Social Security. Or, put more bluntly, government spending to make sure the most vulnerable among us don't hit the bottom. 

Conversely, it's no coincidence that poverty among single moms and children is cresting. Why? Because over the past two decades we have torn down every program we created to lift these groups up out of poverty. "As anti-poverty policies have come to depend more on paid work as the main pathway out of poverty," writes the Economic Policy Institute, in the latest analysis to point out the "lost decade" of the 2000s, "the safety net has become less effective in reducing economic hardship when the economy and job market are underperforming."  

Today's poverty is the accumulated toll of two forces that have advanced in tandem for decades: The corporate fleecing of family wealth and the bipartisan destruction of a refuge to which those shorn families can turn. We fought a long, hard war on poverty to avoid landing in precisely this place. But the Reagan revolution ushered in a long hard war on government to undue that progress. Bill Clinton's protestations notwithstanding, so-called moderate Democrats long ago conceded defeat in Reagan's war. And as a consequence, government is crippled at a time when we need it most. The simple fact remains that unless someone in Washington is willing and able to gather the strength to rebuild government and ensure there's a floor through which we will not let people fall, America will continue its downward spiral.

Cross-posted at ColorLines.com  

Glenn Beck's Perverse Revision of King's Dream Is Nothing New

Cross-posted at ColorLines.com
 
Glenn Beck says it’s “divine providence” that his “Restoring Honor” rally coincides with the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Maybe so. It’s been a little over a year since the beer summit eclipsed the debate over whether health care is a fundamental right, and these past twelve months have brought a steady parade of similar perversions. Beck parodying King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial seems an apt finale.

Beck has spent the past several months needling today’s civil rights leaders with the charge that they screwed up King’s dream. He’s asserted that groups like the NAACP and, most menacingly, ACORN lost their way when they veered into the murky waters of “economic justice” and “social justice.” King’s vision, he has lectured, was about equal rights—about discarding racial markers of any kind so every individual can compete in the true American tradition.

"Far too many have either gotten just lazy or they have purposely distorted Martin Luther King's ideas of judge a man by the content of his character," Beck said in June when defending the timing of his rally, which will be held on Saturday's anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. "Lately, in the last twenty years, we've been told that character doesn't matter. Well, if character doesn't matter, then what was Martin Luther King asking people to judge people by?"

Beck insists the event was originally planned for September 12, but that date fell on a Sunday and he couldn't make folks work on the Sabbath. Picking August 28 as the alternate, he says, was a mundane decision: It was the only date that worked for all the principals' schedules. But Beck welcomes the timing. "This is a moment that we reclaim the civil rights movement," he declared on his radio show in May. "It has been so distorted and turned upside down, it's an abomination."

Such theatrics are typical for Beck--his political performances generated $32 million between March 2009 and March 2010—but the ideas behind them are neither new nor particularly radical for the right. Conservatives long ago set out to derail the civil rights movement by co-opting it. Like Beck, the right's Beltway think tanks have always narrowly framed the movement's goals as achieving equal rights and fostering social grace—with victory declared on both fronts. The fact that the proverbial conversation about race is now more focused on racial harmony than racial justice is proof they've succeeded.

Ironically, Beck, Fox and the Tea Party have finally provided today's civil rights leaders a tangible target for challenging this frame-shift. Next generation advocacy groups like Color of Change have consistently targeted Fox, most recently with a campaign to hold the network accountable for Beck's behavior. The NAACP's effort to make the Tea Party take responsibility for racists in its ranks seems like a similar effort to reclaim control of the discussion. Several groups have planned their own march for Saturday, which will culminate on the National Mall. Organizers insist they're not looking for a showdown. "At no point will we interchange," Rev. Al Sharpton told the Washington Post. "We will not desecrate the march and what King stood for."

All of this, of course, begs the question of what King, his movement and this iconic speech in  fact stood for—and what reformers stand for today. There are many things about King's dream speech that Beck won't likely point out at this weekend's gathering. Perhaps top among them: the 1963 March on Washington was the work of a war-resisting labor organizer, A. Philip Randolph, and an openly gay man, Bayard Rustin, who was himself a war-resisting socialist.

The event's actual name was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. That moniker was a compromise between King, who wanted a more focused event, and Randolph, who helped broker the broad constituency that made the march the largest peacetime gathering in the nation's history at the time. King's iconic speech reflected the event's dual focus on economic and political justice--and it included much, much more than a call to judge people by their character.

King began the speech by harking back to the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation as a "great beacon of light." But he quickly pivoted to the ways in which that light had dimmed. "One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity," King declared. "We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one," he later added.

He talked about change-making in starkly radical terms, explicitly rejecting the purported pragmatism we're now urged to accept on everything from immigration to jobs to healthcare. "This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism," he insisted. Before he got around to kids holding hands and singing about freedom, King talked about the "whirlwinds of revolt" that would make that moment possible, about the need to "shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges."

Indeed, even when King finally arrived at his dream moment of childlike racial harmony, he set it up as the counter to cynical Southern politicians who refused to obey federal laws. "I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor's lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers."

Swap Arizona for Alabama and the refrain still works today.

But such language would likely get a racial justice leader catcalled out of Washington today. It'd be considered too divisive, too combative. It certainly wouldn't poll well. No, King's actual dream would likely render him the target of dismissive White House snark about unrealistic lefties.

Which is perhaps the lesson to take from these past twelve months of watching Glenn Beck, Andrew Breitbart and the Tea Party dominate the airwaves—and set the boundaries for what's politically reasonable on everything from immigration reform to job creation. If Beck's the loudest national voice talking about King's dream, he'll be the one who defines how we make it manifest.

The Lesson of Mosque-Mania: It's Our Values, Stupid

Cross-posted at Colorlines.com.

There can be no more doubt about what today's GOP stands for. From mosques and birthrights to lazy laid-off workers, the Republican Party has concocted one way after another to pander to the most reactionary emotions of its base. But if Republicans win back Capitol Hill, they will have Democrats to thank. Because the Dems' timid rejoinder to the GOP's summer of demagoguery similarly reveals how afraid they are of debating our defining values. And like all fears, theirs is ultimately self-defeating.

The orchestrated absurdity surrounding a Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan is but the latest, if most bald example of the GOP's attempt to conquer by division. The "debate" Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and House Republicans have stirred couldn't be more divorced from reality. The center is neither a mosque nor located on Ground Zero. And local authorities, to whom conservative ideology professes deference, have resolved zoning issues to their satisfaction. But the facts don't matter. Republicans are building a cultural consensus, not making policy.

On the stump, candidates have dressed up their objections in sensitivity to the 9/11 families. For that logic to work, one has to assume both that no 9/11 families are Muslim and that Islam is defined by terrorism. It's an easy slide from either notion to Gingrich's comparison of the community center's developers with Nazis—a slur that defied both reason and decency.

Democrats have responded by pointing to the Constitution. But the mosque mania is no more about constitutional law than is the Republican leadership's sudden interest in the Fourteenth Amendment. Nor, speaking of constitutional law, did the Republican bashing of Thurgood Marshall during Elena Kagan's confirmation hearings have a thing to do with weighing her judicial philosophy. Rather, all of these "debates" are successful attempts to turn policy questions into referendums on our national identity—who we are and what we value.

A CNN poll last week suggested the referendum results are lopsided. Nearly seven out of ten respondents opposed plans "to build a mosque two blocks from the site" of 9/11. Nearly half favored rewriting the Fourteenth Amendment in order to deny citizenship to the US-born children of undocumented parents. Half also said they don't think gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to marriage.

What do all of these questions have in common? They concern issues Republicans have hammered and Democrats have dodged. On issue after issue, the Republicans' divisive ideas for America's core values win out because Democratic leaders refuse to articulate a set of progressive American values.

Much has been made of President Obama's back and forth on the Muslim community center. But even his initial statement hardly represented a spirited response to days worth of anti-Muslim vitriol.

"As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country," he said. "And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances."

Never mind the local ordinances. Palin was correct, sadly, when she responded to Obama by Tweeting, "We all know that they have the right to do it, but should they? This is not above your pay grade."

Obama convinced many voters—myself included—that whatever his politics, he was a leader capable of forcefully articulating a new set of values to guide America through perilous times. This summer has proven him either unwilling or unable to meet that charge.

He has said he isn't commenting on the "wisdom" of building the Muslim community center, but that's precisely what we so desperately need him to do. Are we the kind of community that holds religious plurality and freedom at its core or aren't we? Do we believe immigration enriches our communities or don't we? Are America's gay and lesbian relationships as legitimate as straight ones or aren't they? Are we a country that accepts nearly double-digit unemployment or not? Indeed, even on the economy, the real, agenda-shaping questions are value-based ones that Republicans consistently force and Democrats consistently dodge.

What's so striking is that one of the president's most widely lauded accomplishments came before he took office: his Philadelphia speech on race. Reportedly, top campaign advisers urged him not to give that speech, in order to avoid a distracting fight about race. Wisely, Obama recognized that race had become the main event—and that Republicans were going to beat on him whether he fought or not. We all saw what happened when he stood up and pushed back by passionately articulating a set of progressive values.

That's something Obama did again and again on the campaign trail, actually. On healthcare. On energy. On the economy. Yes, governing means moving the levers of government, not just running your mouth. But a values stance will always trump one that's focused on "local laws and ordinances" in the American political sphere. And as long as the president and his party avoid taking one, the Republican demagoguery will continue to dominate.

Regulators Who Ignored WaMu's Predatory Lending

Sen. Carl Levin spent the morning lashing into former banking regulators who were supposed to have prevented Washington Mutual's spectacular 2008 failure, which was the largest-ever bank collapse. It's now clear both the bank and federal regulators knew the subprime loans that triggered that collapse were at best shoddy and in many cases fraudulent. What also ought to be clear is how utterly inadequate the current regulatory structure is for protecting consumers and how destructive that regulatory failure is to the global economy.

Levin's particularly incensed about the Office of Thrift Supervision's effort to keep FDIC Chair Sheila Bair out of the regulatory conversation. Bair was among a few, lone voices in the regulatory world who advocated a tough line against the banks. Levin called OTS' position, on the other hand, "feeble." He dug up emails in which OTS worked aggressively to keep Bair on the sidelines, including one in which OTS chief John Reich declared, "I cannot believe the continuing audacity of this woman."

Levin's chairing a investigative panel into how WaMu failed and how regulators dropped the ball. Earlier this week, the Senate panel's investigation found that WaMu's executives knew of rampant fraud in the bank's massive subprime lending operation, including falsifying documents and steering borrowers to high-cost loans. Today, Levin rolled out scores of real-time OTS findings that WaMu had shoddy lending practices -- such as ignoring underwriting standards and emphasizing loan volume, regardless of soundness, so that they could be sold in the securities market. Documents show OTS noticing these practices year after year, for five years, and doing nothing to stop them.

The problem was OTS' too cozy relationship with the bank. As AP reports,

 

Panel chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., says the OTS' chief, John Reich, called the bank his "biggest constituent" when preparing for a meeting with WaMu CEO Kerry Killinger.

 

[snip]

Levin said the OTS was too forgiving with WaMu after agency regulators found glaring problems with its lending and risk management starting in 2002. He called the relationship a "clear conflict of interest," since the OTS is funded by fees from regulated banks including WaMu.

WaMu's fees accounted for 12 to 15 percent of the OTS' budget, more than any other bank's, the report says.

The OTS oversaw WaMu "on a collaborative basis, not a regulatory basis," said Levin, who chairs the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

 

This is precisely why President Obama proposed a new, independent agency to watchdog all financial products on behalf of consumers. But the bill the Senate's now considering, led by Sen. Chris Dodd, would instead create a consumer protection bureau inside the Federal Reserve. That bureau would have broad powers to write and enforce new regulations on financial products, but the existing bank regulators would have veto power if new rules threatened their understanding of the banking sector's "safety and soundness." Levin's hearings this week ought to be proof enough why that's a bad idea.

Meanwhile, RealtyTrac reported yesterday a whopping 35 percent jump in foreclosures for the first quarter of 2010, over a year ago. After more than a year of delay, the administration has recently begun encouraging -- but not requiring -- banks and mortgage servicers to write down the principal balances on "underwater" loans. The same banks that continue to oppose a consumer protection watchdog said Tuesday principal write downs are a bad idea. "We must do it in a measured, responsible way so that only customers with a legitimate hardship and genuine interest in maintaining homeownership qualify," Bank of America home loans president Barbara Desoer told a House committee (emphasis mine).

Those words again: Responsible. Legitimate. Always in reference to borrowers, never to banks -- or regulators for that matter.

Cross-posted at RaceWire.

Urban Count in Census Lagging Again, So Far

If you live in a big city, particularly in a neighborhood full of people of color, you've likely been bombarded with Census advertising in recent weeks. Here’s why: Washington has spent a record $14 billion over the past decade in an effort to finally accurately count urban areas. So far, the results are mixed.

As of today, a familiar pattern had emerged. Small, white-dominated counties in the Plains and the Midwest were leading the way in share of households that had mailed in their Census questionnaires. Green township, Ohio, leads the nation with a 72 percent response rate. Sioux Falls city, S.D., is at 66 percent. Meanwhile, just a third of Brooklynites have replied; 26 percent in my neighborhood (really, y’all?). Cook County, which overlaps with Chicago, and Los Angeles County are both doing better at roughly 50 percent. The Census Bureau has a fun interactive map here, where you can check out response rates and drill all the way down to the neighborhood-level.

Next month Census workers will start going door-to-door to follow up. That’s when we’ll really find out how much progress the bureau has made in fixing the chronic urban undercount. A Pew Hispanic Center survey suggests that the massive public awareness push from groups like the National Association of Latino Elected Officials and Leadership Conference on Civil Rights has at least shaped public opinion on participation. A remarkable 91 percent of foreign-born Latinos Pew surveyed last month said they planned to participate in the Census.

The challenge is multi-layered. There’s the obvious fact that many people in Black and immigrant neighborhoods have rightfully distrustful relationships with officialdom. Certainly, with deportations at record highs, any household with undocumented family members isn’t going to be eager to fill out a questionnaire for the federal government. But there’s also hard logistics: Dense urban areas are dynamic places, in which both the housing stock and residents are constantly in motion. A housing-based population count is challenging. The recession doesn’t help, as more and more people struggle to hold onto stable housing.

The stakes are high, though, and not just for national politics. Census data informs hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending. A presidential review board following the 2000 Census predicted New York City’s undercount would cost it $847 million. States draw local electoral districts with Census data. Cities figure out the number and distribution of City Council seats. Schools, community centers, bus lines - all this stuff’s impacted by Census data. And, frankly, it’s about something deeper: Who we are as a nation. The 2010 Census, if everyone gets counted, will no doubt reflect a dramatically different future for America - a nation that’s browner and more urban than ever. I’ll have an in-depth look at the Census and the effort to get it right later this month, so more to come on all of this.

Cross-posted at RaceWire.

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