Sunday, May 31, 2015

A Progressive View of Change

In 2008 after Barack Obama announced that he would run for president, he said that - while he ultimately favored single payer - he felt that to go directly from our current system to single payer would be too disruptive. A few months ago, as Vermont attempted to set up a single payer system and failed, they demonstrated that he was right.

It turns out that even if a single payer system would save money on administrative costs, there is a whole lot of money we are collecting to pay for our current system. Finding a way to capture all that and use if for a single payer system would create big winners and big losers. Addressing the problem this creates in making that kind of transfer fair - especially to average Americans on Main Street - is something advocates of single payer haven't addressed.

So instead of single payer we got Obamacare, which has brought the rate of uninsured Americans down to a historical low, all while slowing the rate of health care inflation and extending the life of Medicare.

When President Obama took office, this country was careening towards another Great Depression. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has said in retrospect that his goal was to provide a soft landing for the economy. Some economists thought that the best option was to nationalize the financial institutions that were near collapse (and would have triggered a Great Depression if they were allowed to do so). Instead, through an infusion of both public and private money, we bailed them out and initiated "stress tests" to demonstrate the kind of stability that could calm everything down.

It turns out that, while this produced a slow recovery (but faster than any other country), it ended up costing taxpayers less that the alternative of nationalizing the banks. It also had the desired effect of calming things down rather than ramping up the kinds of insecurities that would have come from nationalizing the banks. After criticizing Geithner for this approach, even Paul Krugman has admitted that it worked. In other words, it protected Main Street from another Great Depression and the kind of insecurity and chaos that would have led to a prolonged Great Recession.

That was followed up by the passage of Dodd-Frank that brought us the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, made the stress tests an annual occurrence, and incentivized the "too big to fail" financial institutions to downsize.

My purpose in going back over all that history is to point out that there is a lesson to be learned about President Obama's approach. The current frame on these issues is that populist Democratic politicians and presidential candidates who support things like single payer and breaking up the banks are to the "left" of the President because they stand for "Main Street" while he has too often protected "Wall Street." I see that as fallacious thinking.

If you think that the chaos that would be created by jumping from our current health care system to single payer would be good for Main Street, then I'm afraid we disagree. Likewise, if you think the chaos that would have been created by nationalizing the banks would have socked it to Wall Street but had no impact on Main Street, then I think you aren't paying enough attention to how our economy works.

Over the years President Obama has often referred to his "North Star" that guides him. Here's how he described it back in 2010.
So, my job is to make sure that we have a North Star out there, what is helping people live out their lives; what is giving them more opportunity.
From watching him over the years, I'd suggest that its safe to say that following his North Star means recognizing the fact that the disruption of huge change creates unintended consequences that usually fall disproportionately on Main Street. Instead, he has sought changes that slowly and steadily build on a platform of security and increasing opportunity.

There are those who legitimately disagree with this view of change. Some deny that chaos is the result of big change and other simply think it would be worth it. That's a debate we need to have. But we'll never have that conversation as long as we continue to cling to the fallacious thinking that I've described here. Protecting Main Street from the unintended consequences of chaos while redirecting our ship of state towards our North Star is actually my idea of what pragmatic progressivism should be about. You might see it differently. That would be the basis for an intelligent debate.  

Saturday, May 30, 2015

AbOriginal

Given that I'm an old-timer, rap music has never really been my cup o' tea. But while I was reading around for the post below about Native American voting rights, I ran across an interview with a young man named Frank Waln.

I always wanted to heal and help people. It’s something I saw my grandfather doing, and that my mother does now, so it was always in me. I just didn’t know how. Not many people from my reservation go to college, and I was the first from my high school to get this very prestigious scholarship—a full ride, the Gates Millennium Scholarship—to wherever I chose to go. Music was my interest, but everyone said, “be a lawyer,” “be a doctor,” because not a lot of us get these opportunities. So I went to Creighton University in Nebraska to study pre-med...

After I left Creighton, I told an elder I didn’t want to be a doctor anymore and wanted to do music. He said, “Sometimes music is the best medicine.” And that stays with me today...

A lot of Western culture is about the individual, rather than seeing how everything is connected and related. In a lot of indigenous cultures, it is about community. Indigenous cultures understand that you’re an individual, but you play a part in the whole—and not just the community of human beings, but also part of the Earth. What we do to the land and the water will affect others, our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren. I was raised in a very matriarchal environment, and my family lived off of the land and taught me how to respect it because it takes care of us. That plays into my work...

The Lakota name given me by my elders is Oyate Teca Obmani, which means “walks with young people.” This came in a ceremony a couple years ago and it’s the path I’m supposed to take. Walking with young people is where I’ll have the most impact.
Here's an example of Frank's work:

Native American Voting Rights: DOJ is ON IT!



When we hear about the challenges to voting rights these days, it's usually about voter ID requirements, felony voting rights and elimination/reduction of early voting opportunities. But many Native Americans face a whole different kind of challenge.
It was mid-April, and Montana was gearing up for this year’s primary election. Voting would get underway in Big Sky Country on May 5, with a month of advance voting by absentee ballot—by mail or by delivering a ballot to the county courthouse—leading up to Primary Day on June 3. If people hadn’t registered, they could head to the courthouse to sign up.

But for Ed “Buster” Moore, who lives on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in north-central Montana, it wasn’t so simple. To cast a ballot during the absentee-voting period, he would have to make the 126-mile round trip to the Blaine County Courthouse in Chinook. That’s about $21 worth of gas, not to mention the income that Moore, an artisan, would lose by taking a half day off from his work making hand drums, rawhide bags and other items that he sells in the community and on the Internet. A diabetic, he’d have to buy lunch on the road. Those expenses add up.

If he had to vote today? “I couldn’t afford it,” Moore says.
In a lawsuit filed last year by Mark Wandering Medicine in Montana, researches found that Mr. Moore is not the only one who can't afford to vote.
To determine how distance and poverty affect Native voting access, the DOJ asked University of Wyoming geography professor Gerald R. Webster to examine the three Montana reservations involved in Wandering Medicine. Webster found that Indians on those reservations traveled two to three times farther than whites to get to a county courthouse. Meanwhile, depending on the reservation, Indians were two to three times more likely not to have a vehicle for the trip. They were also less likely to have money to fill the gas tank: In Blaine County, which overlaps Fort Belknap, Webster found that the Native poverty rate was 2.5 times that of whites; in Rosebud County, which overlaps the Northern Cheyenne reservation, Natives were four times more likely than whites to live below the poverty line.
Notice who commissioned that research: DOJ (yet another example of the Civil Rights Division at work).
This time, however, the Native people have the United States on their side: Wandering Medicine has attracted the interest of the Department of Justice, which views the suit as an important test of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and has taken it up as part of its efforts to ensure equal rights nationwide.
That lawsuit was eventually settled, giving Native American voters in Montana some temporary relief. But DOJ kept working on it. Recently they have announced legislation that would address the problem.
On May 21, 2015, the Department of Justice proposed federal legislation that would require states or localities whose territory includes part or all of an Indian reservation, an Alaska Native village, or other tribal lands to locate at least one polling place in a venue selected by the tribal government.
Here's what one voting rights advocate had to say about the DOJ proposal:
The Justice Department's proposal "would be great, a lot of it is stuff we’ve had to fight election by election, county by county to get in the past,” said Greg Lembrich, a legal adviser to Four Directions, a nonprofit civil rights group that has filed numerous voting rights lawsuits in those states over the last decade. He called the prospect of Congress taking up the DOJ's legislation "a dream come true for voting rights advocates."
Of course we can all engage our cynicism about how legislation like this doesn't stand a chance of passing in this Congress. But just take a moment to imagine what it means for people like him to finally be able to say something like this: "This time, however, the Native people have the United States (DOJ) on our side."

Friday, May 29, 2015

Mind-Blowing Fact of the Day

Elizabeth Warren: The Pragmatist

In his bio about Elizabeth Warren, Ryan Lizza tells a pretty interesting story that might surprise a lot of people. It takes place in 2009/2010 when a Democratic Congress was considering Wall Street reform. Warren was not a Senator yet, but was trying to make sure that the legislation included her idea for a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

Warren decided to work with Camden Fine, head of the Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA). Her goal was not to convince this group to support CFPB, but to ensure they remained neutral.

For some background on ICBA, they represent 6,500 community banks around the country. But they are no small-fries themselves. The group donates generously to both Republicans and Democrats in Congress and spends almost $5 million a year lobbying on behalf of their member's interests.  It's interesting to note how various people describe the ICBA. Here's what Lizza says about them:
For years, she [Warren] has worked closely with Camden Fine, the head of the Independent Community Bankers of America, who is considered by some to be one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington.
Michael Grunwald said this about them:
Americans are often warned that Wall Street controls Washington, but the megabanks took a beating in Dodd-Frank; the community banks, which have a presence in every congressional district, wield more power on the Hill, and fared much better.
Warren was able to convince Camden Fine and the ICBA to stay neutral on CFPB. But as Rep. Barney Frank told Lizza, she had to go a bit farther than simply talking to them to get that done.
As the Dodd-Frank bill made its way through Congress, in 2010, Fine’s willingness to tolerate it was crucial. With Warren’s blessing, Barney Frank, who sponsored the bill in the House, negotiated a deal with Fine that allowed community banks to be examined by their current regulators rather than by Warren’s new agency. “They were the ones with the clout, and that’s why I had to make a deal with Cam,” Frank told me. Warren signed off on it. “She was willing to do what she had to do as long as it didn’t give away substance,” Frank said. “Every time we came to one of those things where, to save the great bulk of the bill, we had to make some kind of concession, she understood it and was very helpful in selling it.”
In the end, the CFPB came into being because Elizabeth Warren (and legislators like Barney Frank) were willing to make concessions to "one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington." When we talk about how things work in D.C., this is what we mean. It's pretty much the same kind of deal President Obama made with pharmaceutical companies to make sure that they stayed neutral in the fight over Obamacare.

Can we change that? It remains to be seen. In the meantime, when the end game is as important as the CFPB or health care reform, you have to be willing to do what you have to do as long as it doesn't give away substance. That's pragmatism.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Story We've Told Ourselves About "Too Big to Fail" is False

There is a story we've told ourselves about what caused the Great Recession of 2008. Here's how it goes:

"Too big to fail" banks engaged in criminal and unethical activities that led to their near collapse, so government (i.e., taxpayers) had to bail them out in order to stop another Great Depression.

With that as the story, a lot of "populist" Democrats suggest that the solution is to break up the "too big to fail" banks in order to prevent us from ever having to bail them out again. Of course that story is combined with the fact of growing income inequality and so many assume that taking the big banks down a peg or two will mitigate the gap.

Finally, blaming the Great Recession on the big banks provides us with a villain to blame for all the pain and suffering of millions who lost jobs, homes, retirement savings, etc.

Given my distrust of conventional wisdom, I've always thought that it is important to do a reality check on this kind of narrative in order to determine if it has any bearing on the truth or if it is simply a liberal version of what Stephen Colbert called "truthiness." Thanks to some great analysis by Michael Grunwald, it's clear that this story we've told ourselves is mostly the latter.
Breaking up the banks is one of those ideas that sound great in theory but less so in reality, a no-brainer until you run it through your brain. It’s not that size doesn’t matter at all, but the debate over size has been absurdly one-sided, ignoring the benefits of bigness, the potential costs of breakups, and what’s already been done to address the too-big-to-fail problem.
Here are some facts to run through your brain:

It wasn't the collapse (or near-collapse) of "too big to fail" that triggered the Great Recession.
Bear Stearns wasn’t even one of the fifteen largest U.S. financial institutions in March 2008, when the Fed had to engineer a massive rescue to prevent it from collapsing and dragging down the global economy with it. Lehman Brothers wasn’t even in America’s top ten when its failure did trigger a global meltdown that September.
"Too big to fail" banks got bigger because they were able to absorb the smaller firms that were failing.
If JP Morgan hadn’t been big and strong enough to absorb the hemorrhaging balance sheets of Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual, we might well have endured a depression. Ditto if Wells Fargo hadn’t been big and strong enough to let Wachovia collapse into its arms. The world is also lucky Bank of America was big and (arguably) dumb enough to salvage Countrywide and Merrill Lynch from the jaws of death.
"Too big to fail" banks were not the only ones engaged in risky behavior and also not the only ones who got bailed out by the government.
And while mega-rescues for mega-banks dominated the headlines, over 900 community banks and regional banks received bailouts through the Troubled Asset Relief Program as well. The government also guaranteed unsecured bank debt, money market funds, and deposits of up to $250,000, which amounted to an even more generous bailout of Main Street banks.
Glass-Steagall wouldn't have helped.
Bear, Lehman, Merrill, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG and the other firms at the heart of the crisis were totally unaffected by Glass-Steagall.
What led to the 2008 collapse was not size - but risky bets.
...the main cause of hellacious crises is not overlarge banks. It’s overleveraged banks that make risky bets with borrowed money. Before the panic of 2008, the financial system had a risk problem, not a size problem.
Beware of unintended consequences.
Breaking up the big banks would inject tremendous turmoil into a confidence-based industry where turmoil can have far-reaching unintended consequences.
Grunwald points out that overall, Dodd-Frank is working by raising the capital requirements for big banks in order to protect against the risks. And then he goes on to talk about ways that the current regulations could be strengthened. But ultimately, vigilance is what will be required.
Risk has a way of migrating to the path of least resistance...What’s safe to predict is that risk won’t go away. The goal should be to monitor and manage it, not to eradicate it. Financial reformers often make grand pronouncements about how this or that reform will eliminate the risk of meltdowns and bailouts, but those risks will remain as long as human beings are susceptible to manias like the one that inflated the credit bubble before the crisis and panics like the one that nearly shredded the system during the crisis—in other words, as long as human beings are human.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Perspective 101

Whether or not you believe that this is how life works, it's definitely how most of our media works.

Photo of the Day: A "Dream" Field Trip

For the past 16 years, [97 year-old Vivian] Bailey has led a fundraising effort to help Running Brook Elementary School fulfill its "wish list" for students. Part of that wish list includes funding field trips for the school children, something Bailey finds particularly important.

"I've been very insistent on trying to make sure our kids get field trips," Bailey said. "I want our children whose parents are certainly not wealthy to have those opportunities."...

Bailey, who does not have any biological children, said she considers the children at Running Brook Elementary as her own.

"When people ask how many children I have, I try to keep my face straight. I have over 300!" she said.
This year the students took a field trip to Washington, D.C. and they invited Ms. Bailey to go along...her first field trip ever! It included a tour of the White House.

And then this happened.



Not Good Enough, Bernie (updated)

Here are a few of the things I'm reading about today:

The Supreme Court has decided to hear a case that could overturn the practice of "one person, one vote."
For 50 years the “one person, one vote” principle has been used to divvy up political power by counting all people in states and putting them into electoral districts of roughly equal size.

But the mathematics of power may be about to change in a way that could shift political clout away from fast-growing Latino communities in states such as California, Texas and Florida and move it to the suburbs and rural areas.

The Supreme Court surprised election-law experts Tuesday and said it would hear arguments this fall about whether voting districts should continue to be drawn by using census population data, which include noncitizen immigrants who are in the United States both legally and illegally, or whether the system should be changed to count only citizens who are eligible to vote, as conservative challengers are seeking.
A U.S. Appeals Court ruled on the current hold on President Obama's immigration action (made necessary when Congress failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform).
President Barack Obama's plan to shield millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation was dealt another setback on Tuesday when a U.S. appeals court refused to lift a block put in place by 26 states that argued Obama overstepped his authority.

By a 2-1 vote that could pave the way to a Supreme Court ruling, the judges from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled that Obama's executive action should remain on hold pending further judicial proceedings.
A new study shows that teachers of all races are more likely to punish black students.
Two students. One is black and the other is white. On Tuesday, they both refuse to complete the math worksheet. On Wednesday, neither will stop talking during lessons.

Same behavior. Will they receive the same punishment?

A new Stanford University study predicts that the black student will be punished more harshly. Why? Not because of overt racism. Rather, harsher discipline might be the result of unconscious partiality to the white student, a phenomenon called “implicit bias” by psychologists. The study also finds that the bias might be just as likely to come from a black teacher as a white one.
Alana Massey writes about how the Apotheosis of Washington - which was painted in 1865 by Constantino Brumidi and adorns the ceiling of the U.S. Capitol Rotunda - points to the white protestant roots of American racism.

When the fresco was completed, four million black people called the United States home but were only that year able to enjoy even the most limited experience of citizenship when the Civil War ended and the Emancipation Proclamation began the process of ending slavery. Of course, Brumidi’s fresco only features white faces.

His painting illustrates the complexities of a nation inextricably informed by the religious ethics of its founders and those who continue to wield power today: Religious white men, ascending to fame on the strength of their ideals. Even those founding fathers—who identified primarily as deists—shared views that aligned with Christian theologies. American society is heavily informed by this religious foundation, specifically in terms of racial injustice, even as religious identification declines.
But perhaps the most gut-punching story of all was about the release of this picture:

Chicago Police Officers Jerome Finnigan, left, and Timothy McDermott with an unidentified man | Photo from court file

That photo would be horrifying at any time. But coming on the heels of all the incidents of police shooting unarmed black men and the Department of Justice report detailing the outlandish racism that permeated the Ferguson Police Department, City Hall and Court system, it is nothing short of soul-crushing.

It is due to all of the above that I have to say that when Sen. Bernie Sanders kicks off his presidential campaign with a suggestion that he is launching a "political revolution to transform our country," and yet makes zero mention of any of the issues that burden people of color in this country, my response is simply..."Not good enough, Bernie."

UPDATE: Dara Lind does a good job of looking into why Sen. Sanders doesn't talk about race. It has to do with the fact that he's more of a "1930s radical as opposed to a 1960s radical."
To him, focusing on racial issues first is merely treating the symptom, not the disease.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Phone Part of a "Pen and Phone" Strategy

We all saw how President Obama came out swinging after the midterm elections with his "pen and phone strategy." Most of the things that drew headlines were items that depended on the "pen" (executive orders) side of things - the latest being a new Clean Water Rule issued by the EPA.

But as Gregory Korte reports, a quieter use of the "phone" part of that strategy has been underway as well.
President Obama has quietly racked up a series of legislative victories during the past few months as lawmakers have enthusiastically embraced his calls for a higher minimum wage, paid sick leave and universal pre-kindergarten.

Instead of Capitol Hill, those victories happened in city halls, state houses and county buildings far from Washington.

At least six major cities — Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Tacoma, Wash., and Washington, D.C. — have passed paid sick leave laws in the four months since Obama called for state and local action in this year's State of the Union Address. Since the 2013 address when Obama called for an increase in the minimum wage, 17 states and six major cities have taken action, including Los Angeles last week.

"It is a change in the paradigm, where we used to sit passively by waiting for elected officials to come to us. We think we can have a more substantial impact if we collaborate," said Valerie Jarrett, the assistant to the president for public engagement and intergovernmental affairs.

"I think the president has always had the perspective that change always happens from the ground up, and our state and local officials are oftentimes more influenced by the will of the American people than the politics in Washington would seem to indicate," Jarrett said in an interview.
That sounds an awful lot like the approach of a community organizer, doesn't it? Here's how at least one expert describes it.
Obama has opened an entirely new frontier of presidential power by turning to state and local governments, said Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, who studies the effect of presidential persuasion at the University of North Texas.

"I'm really struck by, one, why hasn't anybody thought of this before? And two, this could be a very effective strategy," Eshbaugh-Soha said. "At a time when executive orders are becoming particularly controversial and you're not able to break through the gridlock of Congress, I think it's ingenious."
I am reminded of how Michelle Obama described her husband back in 2005:
Barack is not a politician first and foremost. He's a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.

An Insurgency by Any Other Name is Still an Insurgency

In my very first post at Political Animal, I described the possible threat from a Confederate insurgency. In his review of Charles Murray's latest book, By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission, Ian Millhiser basically describes it as an insurgency by another name.

Before he gets to the book, Millhiser reminds us of a couple of things. First of all, he points to the fact that it was not that long ago that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested that democracy wasn't working.
At the height of 2011’s debt ceiling crisis, then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) offered a candid explanation of why his party was willing to threaten permanent harm to the U.S. economy unless Congress agreed to change our founding document. “The Constitution must be amended to keep the government in check,” McConnell alleged. “We’ve tried persuasion. We’ve tried negotiations. We’ve tried elections. Nothing has worked.”...

Few politicians are willing to admit what McConnell admitted when he confessed that elections have not “worked” to bring about the policy Republicans tried to impose on the nation in 2011. Elected officials, after all, only hold their jobs at the sufferance of the voters, and a politician who openly admits that they only believe in democracy insofar as it achieves their desired ends gives the middle finger to those voters and to the very process that allows those voters to have a say in how they are governed.
Secondly, he reminds us that, even though an entire industry has risen to debunk Murray, he is still revered by powerful Republicans.
Dr. Murray’s pre-Bell Curve work shaped the welfare reforms enacted in the 1990s. Former Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan cited Murray in 2014 to claim that there is a culture of laziness “in our inner cities in particular.” Last April, when Jeb Bush was asked what he liked to read, he replied “I like Charles Murray books to be honest with you, which means I’m a total nerd I guess.”

So when Murray speaks, powerful and influential men (and his acolytes are, almost invariably, men) listen, including men who shape our nation’s fiscal policy and men who could be president someday.
Millhiser then does a thorough job of explaining what Murray proposes in this book. It's important to note that it's title "By the People" is the exact opposite of what he recommends. Basically what Murray wants to see is an ultra-rich benefactor who would be willing to pay for a legal defense fund that would subvert the work of the federal government.
To impose these limits on society, Murray claims that his Madison Fund can essentially harass the government into compliance. The federal government, Murray claims, cannot enforce the entirety of federal law “without voluntary public compliance.” Federal resources are limited, and only a small fraction of these limited resources have been directed towards enforcement. Thus, Murray argues, by simply refusing to comply with the law and contesting every enforcement action in court, regulated entities can effectively drain the government’s resources and prevent it from engaging in meaningful enforcement.
These are not merely the ravings of a lunatic right-winger. I was immediately reminded of the fact that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has advised states to disregard the recent EPA rulings on coal plant emissions while various entities challenge them in court.

For a while now I have been suggesting that this form of Republicanism is best described as a beast in it's final death throes. That beast is now a minority in this country and as it lashes out, one of the only remaining possibilities for survival is to subvert our democratic process.

I hope that by now you know that I am not one given to hyperbole and conspiracy theories. I don't say all this to ramp up a fevered reaction. But it's important to see what is happening here with clear eyes and name it what it is...a call to insurgency.

Reflections on Cynicism and Hope

In his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, President Obama returned to a theme he talks about quite often.
But my hope is that over time that debate gets back on a path where there’s some semblance of hope and not simply fear, because it feels to me as if … all we are talking about is based from fear. Over the short term that may seem wise—cynicism always seems a little wise—but it may lead Israel down a path in which it’s very hard to protect itself — as a Jewish-majority democracy.
You might recall that last summer, the President's stump speech always concluded with something like this:
So just remember this: The hardest thing to do is to bring about real change. It's hard. You’ve got a stubborn status quo. And folks in Washington, sometimes they’re focused on everything but your concerns. And there are special interests and there are lobbyists, and they’re paid to maintain the status quo that's working for somebody. And they’re counting on you getting cynical, so you don’t vote and you don’t get involved, and people just say, you know what, none of this is going to make a difference. And the more you do that, then the more power the special interests have, and the more entrenched the status quo becomes.

You can't afford to be cynical. Cynicism is fashionable sometimes. You see it all over our culture, all over TV; everybody likes just putting stuff down and being cynical and being negative, and that shows somehow that you're sophisticated and you're cool. You know what -- cynicism didn’t put a man on the moon. Cynicism didn’t win women the right to vote. Cynicism did not get a Civil Rights Act signed. Cynicism has never won a war. Cynicism has never cured a disease. Cynicism has never started a business. Cynicism has never fed a young mind.

I do not believe in a cynical America; I believe in an optimistic America that is making progress.
Of course, this isn't something President Obama just started talking about recently. Back in 2005 when he was still a Senator from Illinois, he wrote this:
I firmly believe that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, or oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose. A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate.
The idea of cynicism as a tool for "those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government" is something that former Republican Congressional staff member Mike Lofgren confirmed for us back in 2011.
A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress's generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.
But the President is right...cynicism can sound wise and be very tempting to embrace. That's why - for me - it was the words of Clay Claiborne that finally ended it's appeal.
For someone sitting on the very edge of survival, hope is extremely important. Often it is only hope, sometimes even false hope, that allows him to make it to the next day...Cynicism is deadly for someone on the edge of survival. Even in the darkest night, he cannot afford to be cynical. That cynicism just might push him over the edge.

Cynicism is a privilege. When practiced by those in a position to do it well, cynicism allows them to criticize the oppressor and sympathize with the oppressed without ever having to move out of their comfort zone. In fact, one of the main objects of this practice of cynicism is to make the cynic more comfortable. He may not, as yet, be wanting for much personally, but he can see the growing misery all around him so he has to think or do something. The cynic solves this dilemma by thinking that nothing can be done!
Interestingly enough, it was only a few years ago that I came to the conclusion that it was my optimism that was fueled by my white middle class privilege. But that was all based on the kind of false hope that Tim Wise wrote about.
Sometimes I think we both oversell and undersell the notion of fighting for social justice. Oversell in that we focus so much on “winning” the battle in which we’re engaged, that we often create false hope, and when as often happens, victory is limited or not at all, those in whom we nurtured the hope feel spent, unable to rise again to the challenge.

Yet we undersell the work too, in that we often neglect to remind folks that there is redemption in struggle itself, and that “victory,” though sought, is not the only point, and is never finally won anyway. Even when you succeed in obtaining a measure of justice, you’re always forced to mobilize to defend that which you’ve won. There is no looming vacation. But there is redemption in struggle.
That is why Brazilian theologian and philosopher Rubem Alvez defines hope like this:
What is hope? It is the presentiment that imagination is more real and reality less real than it looks. It is the suspicion that the overwhelming brutality of fact that oppresses us and represses us is not the last word. It is the hunch that reality is more complex than the realists want us to believe, that the frontiers of the possible are not determined by the limits of the actual...

...So, let us plant dates, even though we who plant them will never eat them. We must live by the love of what we will never see.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Photo of the Day: Respect

President Obama greets 107-year-old WWII vet Army Lt. Col. Luta Mae Cornelius McGrath at Arlington on Memorial Day.

Gotcha =/= Tough

The national news media in this country is facing a couple of really big challenges right now. One is that not enough people are reading/watching. The rise of the internet has given people all kinds of alternatives. And that means that the business model most media outlets have relied on for years no longer provides the financial resources they need to continue functioning as they have in the past.

Secondly, one of the reasons people aren't reading/watching is that the American public has lost confidence in both the print and television news media. Gallup places that confidence at an all-time low of about 20%.

That's why it was so interesting to watch last week as some national political reporters had a bit of a hissy fit about Hillary Clinton not answering questions from reporters. The line was pretty much: How DARE she?! After we dug up "scandals" related to emails and donations to a charitable foundation that might suggest some sort of impropriety! How dare Clinton not answer our questions and how dare the public not care?!

I'm not sure that playing the outraged "poor me" is a great way to win back readers/viewers. What's worse, at least two of them - Chris Cillizza and Ruth Marcus - went out of their way to say that reporters ask better questions than voters. I love how Jay Rosen responded to that.
I have a better idea, journalists. Figure out what the voters want the candidates to talk about. (And when they’re ready to listen.) Persuade the voters that in your coverage you’re on their side— so many of them that the campaigns have to take notice. Then leverage your superior connection to the people the candidates want to reach...It’s a power game, not a frozen process in which you are granted some role by the mighty hand of James Carville or Ed Rollins.
(OK, so he dates himself a bit with references to Carville and Rollins...the point still stands.)

Ryan Cooper takes Rosen's assessment one step farther.
As Jay Rosen points out, the carping is pretty rich coming from elite political journalists, most of whom pride themselves on being cynical, ultra-realistic, savvy interpreters of how politics works. (Setting aside the fact that the great majority of such people merely ape the elite conventional wisdom, and are often badly mistaken as to political mechanics.) The members of what Rosen calls the "Church of the Savvy" are getting a big taste of their own cynical medicine, and they're retreating into the kind of righteous objections about democratic integrity that they scorned for decades...

The other reason I have little sympathy for campaign reporters is that it's far from clear that they were actually providing anything of value even back when candidates were answering their questions. Instead of concentrating on what has to be the most important question — "how would you govern as president?" — they typically pose inane questions about process, the horse race, or gaffes. Even Tim Russert mostly aimed for pointless gotchas.
I'll take Cooper's analysis and raise him. It's not just campaign reporters. I was reminded of my own reaction when I watched President Obama's year-end press conference last December. I remember thinking how this one felt more informative and substantial than the usual round of "gotchas" that we've come to expect (don't take my word for it, click on the link and read for yourself). Towards the end, it began to dawn on me that the President was exclusively calling on female reporters. That meant that none of the questions were being asked by the male correspondents from the major broadcast and cable news networks. I suspect that the substantial tone had less to do with the gender of the reporters than the fact that these women weren't looking for a simple soundbite to use in their two-minute spot on the nightly news.

Of course, the next day Fox New's Commentator Howard Kurtz said that in the press conference President Obama had taken a victory lap and easily handled questions that were "bland, tentative or rambling."
I’m not saying the press has to be prosecutorial toward the president. But a full-dress news conference is a rare chance to ask aggressive questions that are honed to knock the commander-in-chief off his talking points.
In other words, a "full-dress news conference" is a rare chance to ask "gotcha" questions rather than inform. It's not that political reporters should be stenographers for either candidates or elected officials. But certainly we can do better than simply trying to create a gaffe moment over and over again. For example, how about attempting to actually understand a politician's viewpoint on an issue by asking tough probing questions and then report that to the public - along with facts and information that might either support their position or challenge it?

I don't know if an approach like that would actually get more Americans to read/watch the news. But it might just raise our confidence in political reporting as a way to gather information rather than play a game - which would be a start.

The Search for Heroes and Villains

The most enduring story in our culture is the one that focuses on the battle between a hero and villain. Perhaps that's because it captures the way so many of us see the world. And so it should come as no surprise to any of us that much of our political story winds up being about the search for a hero and the identification of a villain.

As the Cold War ended in the early '90's, a lot of us on the left celebrated the fact that conservatives were relieved of their overarching villain...communists. Of course, it didn't take long before communists were replaced by terrorists and now, for some, that has morphed into Muslims as the villain in our world today.

But make no mistake about it, liberals have their own villains. These days they go by names like corporations, corporatists, plutocrats, etc. The same anger and fear that drives conservatives to blame the world's woes on Muslims drives liberals to do the same with corporations. Of course, there is an element of truth in both of these when it comes to certain specifics. But it is the demonization and labeling of whole groups of people as "villains" that is the problem.

And so today I began reflecting on why it is that we are so drawn to narratives that oversimplify things in this way. That's when I remembered the quote I posted yesterday.


Though his politics went off the rails a bit towards the end of his life, this quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn captures a profound truth about human nature.
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
I promise not to go all Jungian on you, but the reality is that the search for heroes and villains is actually about our own struggle to embrace the fact that we inhabit both within ourselves. We attempt to avoid that struggle by projecting it out onto the world.

Arthur Miller's play, After the Fall, is a wonderful story about humans coming to grips with their own heroic failings and villainous capacities in the midst of the McCarthy era not long after WWII. In terms of heroics, he has a wonderful line: "To go to someone with the lie of limitless love is to cast a shadow in the face of God." But the most profound moment of the play for me was when the main character Quentin (who is Jewish) asks a German woman how she lives with herself after the Holocaust. Here's what she says.
I think it's a mistake to ever look for hope outside of one's self. One day the house smells of fresh bread, the next of smoke and blood. One day you faint because the gardener cuts his finger off, within a week you're climbing over corpses of children bombed in a subway. What hope can there be if that is so?

I tried to die near the end of the war. The same dream returned each night until I dared not go to sleep and grew quite ill. I dreamed I had a child, and even in the dream I saw it was my life, and it was an idiot, and I ran away. But it always crept onto my lap again, clutched at my clothes. Until I thought, if I could kiss it, whatever in it was my own, perhaps I could sleep. And I bent to its broken face, and it was horrible...but I kissed it. I think one must finally take one's life in one's arms.
You may think by now that I've wandered way off the field of politics. Perhaps that's true. But as a feminist, I'm one of those people who believes that the personal is political and the political is personal. And so, when I see people rushing to demonize their chosen villains and desperately search for a hero who can fix everything for us, I'm reminded  that we're still not sleeping very well because we haven't had the courage to take that broken horrible face into our laps and kiss it. Just as we haven't figured out that anyone promising us limitless love is a hoax.

Melissa gets it.

"We can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace"

I always have a hard time "celebrating" Memorial Day. The superficiality of a lot of the patriotic jingoism seems at odds with the profound sense of loss that is the essence of war. It seems to me that this should be a day when we grapple with the horrific costs of war - most notably in the lives of loved ones who were taken too soon.

As I struggled with that today, I kept remembering how President Obama talked about war and peace in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. Here are some excerpts:
So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another -- that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier's courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause, to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.

So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly inreconcilable truths -- that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly. Concretely, we must direct our effort to the task that President Kennedy called for long ago. "Let us focus," he said, "on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions." 
He goes on to discuss those institutional efforts that inhibit war and encourage peace. But then, he says that these are not enough.
Agreements among nations. Strong institutions. Support for human rights. Investments in development. All these are vital ingredients in bringing about the evolution that President Kennedy spoke about. And yet, I do not believe that we will have the will, the determination, the staying power, to complete this work without something more -- and that's the continued expansion of our moral imagination; an insistence that there's something irreducible that we all share.
He reminds us that the one common rule at the heart of every major religion is to "do unto others as we would have them do unto us."
Adhering to this law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature. For we are fallible. We make mistakes, and fall victim to the temptations of pride, and power, and sometimes evil. Even those of us with the best of intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us.

But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place...

For if we lose that faith -- if we dismiss it as silly or naïve; if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace -- then we lose what's best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass.
What is the role of a soldier's ultimate sacrifice in all this? S/he is but one of many who can provide an example of what it means to live in the world as it is and and still work for the world as we want it to be.
Somewhere today, in the here and now, in the world as it is, a soldier sees he's outgunned, but stands firm to keep the peace. Somewhere today, in this world, a young protestor awaits the brutality of her government, but has the courage to march on. Somewhere today, a mother facing punishing poverty still takes the time to teach her child, scrapes together what few coins she has to send that child to school -- because she believes that a cruel world still has a place for that child's dreams.

Let us live by their example. We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of depravation, and still strive for dignity. Clear-eyed, we can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Odds & Ends

Get ready for another round of "Obama the Tyrant" from Republicans. Coral Davenport says that the President is getting ready to issue new EPA rules that strengthen the federal role in clean water regulation.

A TPM reader fills us in on what led up to the Nebraska legislature's decision to end the death penalty. It strikes me that this is yet another example of how criminal justice reform will continue to advance. It's not a federal issue (yet), but it's clearly a hot item at the state and local level.

Since Chief Justice John Roberts thinks we're living in a color blind society, perhaps someone should fill him in on the racist responses to President Obama's new twitter account as well as what recently happened at a North Dakota gun show (trigger warning: if you follow all the links, this stuff gets really ugly).

This is a story that I keep suggesting has political implications. Todd VanDerWerff is the latest to tell us that network TV is collapsing. As that trend continues, it remains to be seen what happens to all the big campaign money spent on advertisements that no one is watching.

Aurin Squire has a great article describing the current blowback we're seeing that is rooted in white anxiety.

My article earlier about President Obama's empathy for the Jewish people reminded me of this quote that always challenges me to explore my own assumptions.


Finally, I began the weekend with a song from Norah Jones. So I think I'll end with one of hers as well. I'm pretty partial to lullabies. This one is for Rosie. I hope everyone has a wonderful Memorial Day!

Daylight Photo

Pando is a forest of quaking Aspens growing near Fish Lake in Utah. Pando, whose name is Latin for "I spread," is a clonal colony. This means that all the trees in the forest are genetically identical, and are believed to have one combined root system. Pando covers more than 106 acres, and is estimated to weigh in the region of 5,900 tons. More than 40,000 trunks (which look like individual trees) make up the forest, and the roots are believed to be at least 80,000 years old. Yes, 80,000. That's not a typo.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Dear Hillary: Let Your Wonk Flag Fly

Let's be honest. One reason why Hillary Clinton has struggled as a politician is that voters sometimes doubt her authenticity. If you need an example of that, during the 2008 New Hampshire primary when she shed some tears, too many people wondered whether or not that was simply staged to boost her campaign after the deafening blow she took in Iowa.

That's why Peter Beinart's take on what the Clinton campaign is up to this time around is so interesting. He notices that she keeps delaying her "why I'm running for president" speech and has instead given two engaging speeches on policy (criminal justice and immigration reform). He posits that: "Soaring rhetoric and grand themes have never been Hillary’s strengths." Instead, he suggests that:
She’s at her best talking about America not abstractly, but concretely. She’s most inspiring when talking not about what she believes, but about what she wants to do. And she most effectively humanizes herself by being true to who she is: knowledgeable, passionate, and vaguely obsessive about making government work.
A lot of Democrats are like Hillary...passionate about making government work. As I've said before, it is Republicans who are obsessed with empty rhetoric because that's all they've got. When wonkery is combined with authentic passion, it can highlight just how empty that rhetoric is.

While many in the media will try to critique any candidate if they stray too far from the conventional wisdom of what they think a politician should look/sound like, I suspect that what actual voters respond to is passion. If a concrete expression of what she wants to do for America is what fires up Hillary's passion, I say: "Let your wonk flag fly!"

Big News Overnight

Even though it was a Friday night on a holiday weekend, a lot happened while you were sleeping. Here's a quick rundown:

Enough of the votes have been counted that both sides agree: Ireland voted to legalize marriage equality.


The Senate voted 62 - 37 to pass Trade Promotion Authority. Now it's on to the House.

But in the most convoluted story, the Senate failed to pass a bill to change or extend the Patriot Act. To understand what happened here, it's important to know that the Patriot Act is set to expire on June 1st if it is not reauthorized. There are currently three factions on this one:
  1. Majority Leader McConnell and a few Republican hawks in the Senate want the Patriot Act extended "as is."
  2. Senator Rand Paul and a few libertarians want the whole thing to expire.
  3. A huge bipartisan majority in the House (338-88) voted for the USA Freedom Act, which would change the NSA metadata program by shutting down the government's collection of phone call records, but allow them to access the information from telephone companies with a FISA court warrant. Last night, a bipartisan majority in the Senate (57 - 42) voted to approve the same thing. But obviously it wasn't enough to beat the filibuster.
You can read about all the shenanigans that went on last night at the link up above. The end result is that the Senate couldn't pass anything and left town for a week. But McConnell says they'll have to return early for a vote on Sunday, May 31st to avoid the expiration on June 1st. It's unclear what will change between now and then, though.

What's interesting about this is that it all comes down to a procedural problem that has the two Senators from Kentucky wielding tiny minorities to hold up a clear majority. I'm sure that Sen. Paul is feeling pretty revved up this morning about his "victory" over the Majority Leader. And Sen. McConnell's leadership on all this was shown to be really weak.

There is no doubt about what a large majority in Congress (as well as the White House) supports in all of this. It remains to be seen whether or not that means anything in the Senate these days.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Pope Frances Heals Cold War Wounds


For anyone who is aware of the liberal struggles of the 1980's, this is wonderful news.
SAN SALVADOR — Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to convene in a central plaza here on Saturday to celebrate the beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero, 35 years after he was shot in the heart while saying Mass.

Romero, a towering and polarizing figure in Salvadoran history, was chosen by Pope Francis earlier this year to be beatified, the last step before sainthood. It is the first time a Salvadoran has received this religious honor. After years in which the process was stalled, Francis’s decision was a “surprise and a thrill for everyone,” said Simeon Reyes, a spokesman for the Catholic church in El Salvador...

Romero’s death was a watershed moment in El Salvador, a murder that helped propel the country into civil war. He was shot on March 24, 1980, while celebrating Mass in a church at the hospice for cancer patients where he lived. A “truth commission” set up after the war concluded that former army Maj. Roberto D’Aubuisson, a suspected right-wing death squad leader, ordered the killing, but he denied involvement and was never tried. He was the founder of the conservative ARENA party, which governed El Salvador until 2009 and now is in opposition...

The decision to beatify Romero suggests that Pope Francis, an Argentine well-acquainted with military repression in his home country during the “dirty war” of the 1970s and ’80s, found Romero’s saintly cause compelling, regardless of the concerns of his political opponents. But the progress of the case also signifies that the Cold War wounds are gradually healing. Today, a former Marxist guerrilla commander, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, is president of El Salvador.
Many people in the United States finally woke up to what was happening in El Salvador about 9 months after Bishop Romero was assassinated when the military death squads raped and murdered four American nuns who were working with the poor in that country.

As we did all over Central and South America, the United States supported the military dictatorships that carried out these kinds of assassinations.
The United States was heavily involved in wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s in what Reagan described as an effort to stem Soviet influence in the hemisphere. The United States spent more than $4 billion on economic and military aid during El Salvador's civil war, in which more than 75,000 people were killed, many of them civilians caught in the crossfire.
That is why I still mark this moment when President Obama visited the tomb of Bishop Oscar Romero during his visit to El Salvador in March 2011 as one of the most moving of his presidency.

Honest Question

In commenting about the Senate cloture vote on Trade Promotion Authority yesterday, Paul Waldman wrote this:
If I were a cynic, I’d say the only thing that can bring Democrats and Republicans together like that is a bill that’s supported by corporate America.
Does anyone else remember that corporate America strongly supports comprehensive immigration reform? Why hasn't that brought Democrats and Republicans together?

I'm certainly not one who is interested in taking up a defense of "corporate America." But I do think they've become the convenient villain for liberals to blame. Truth is, it only bothers me when it becomes a knee-jerk response that keeps people from looking a bit deeper into things that are often much more complex than an over-simplified "point-and-blame" response can capture.  

President Obama is "Deeply in Touch with the Heart and Spirit of the Jewish People"


Jeffrey Goldberg has conducted yet another fascinating interview with President Obama. They spent time discussing three topics: ISIS, Iran and the President's relationship with Israel and the Jewish people. I was particularly struck by the depth with which the President addressed the last one.
I said in a previous interview and I meant it: I think it would be a moral failing for me as president of the United States, and a moral failing for America, and a moral failing for the world, if we did not protect Israel and stand up for its right to exist, because that would negate not just the history of the 20th century, it would negate the history of the past millennium. And it would violate what we have learned, what humanity should have learned, over that past millennium, which is that when you show intolerance and when you are persecuting minorities and when you are objectifying them and making them the Other, you are destroying something in yourself, and the world goes into a tailspin. 
And so, to me, being pro-Israel and pro-Jewish is part and parcel with the values that I've been fighting for since I was politically conscious and started getting involved in politics. There’s a direct line between supporting the right of the Jewish people to have a homeland and to feel safe and free of discrimination and persecution, and the right of African Americans to vote and have equal protection under the law. These things are indivisible in my mind. But what is also true, by extension, is that I have to show that same kind of regard to other peoples. And I think it is true to Israel’s traditions and its values—its founding principles—that it has to care about those Palestinian kids. And when I was in Jerusalem and I spoke, the biggest applause that I got was when I spoke about those kids I had visited in Ramallah, and I said to a Israeli audience that it is profoundly Jewish, it is profoundly consistent with Israel’s traditions to care about them. And they agreed. So if that’s not translated into policy—if we’re not willing to take risks on behalf of those values—then those principles become empty words, and in fact, in my mind, it makes it more difficult for us to continue to promote those values when it comes to protecting Israel internationally... 
But my hope is that over time that debate gets back on a path where there’s some semblance of hope and not simply fear, because it feels to me as if ... all we are talking about is based from fear. Over the short term that may seem wise—cynicism always seems a little wise—but it may lead Israel down a path in which it’s very hard to protect itself — as a Jewish-majority democracy. And I care deeply about preserving that Jewish democracy, because when I think about how I came to know Israel, it was based on images of, you know— Kibbutzim, and Moshe Dayan, and Golda Meir, and the sense that not only are we creating a safe Jewish homeland, but also we are remaking the world. We’re repairing it. We are going to do it the right way. We are going to make sure that the lessons we’ve learned from our hardships and our persecutions are applied to how we govern and how we treat others. And it goes back to the values questions that we talked about earlier—those are the values that helped to nurture me and my political beliefs... 
I want Israel, in the same way that I want the United States, to embody the Judeo-Christian and, ultimately then, what I believe are human or universal values that have led to progress over a millennium. The same values that led to the end of Jim Crow and slavery. The same values that led to Nelson Mandela being freed and a multiracial democracy emerging in South Africa. The same values that led to the Berlin Wall coming down. The same values that animate our discussion on human rights and our concern that people on the other side of the world who may be tortured or jailed for speaking their mind or worshipping—the same values that lead us to speak out against anti-Semitism. I want Israel to embody these values because Israel is aligned with us in that fight for what I believe to be true.
In his write-up about the interview, Golberg ends by saying that this conversation with President Obama felt like discussions he has participated in dozens of times, but mainly with rabbis. Goldberg sent part of the above quote to his own rabbi to see if he agreed. Here's what he wrote back:
President Obama shares the same yearning for a secure peace in Israel that I and so many of my rabbinic colleagues have. While he doesn't speak as a Jew, his progressive values flow directly out of the core messages of Torah, and so he is deeply in touch with the heart and spirit of the Jewish people.
President Obama often speaks about the importance of empathy. This is a perfect example of how he embodies that value.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors Endorsed TPP

Ron Brownstein brings up a group of people we haven't heard much from when it comes to the discussion about the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal. Back in 2012, the U.S. Conference of Mayors (which is dominated by Democrats) passed a resolution endorsing TPP at their annual meeting. And recently their president, Kevin Johnson of Sacramento, CA, and vice-president, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake of Baltimore, MD, sent a letter to Senate leaders urging them to pass trade promotion authority (TPA - or so-called "fast track").

You might wonder why Democratic mayors would disagree so strongly with their counterparts in Congress. Here is Brownstein's answer to that:
New data released May 13 by the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program helps explain the mayors' tilt toward trade...Brookings found that fully 86 percent of U.S. exports now originate from urban areas. Moreover, exports drove more than one-quarter of all metro area economic growth from 2009-2014. "This has metro leaders and elected officials placing an increasing focus on exports as a way to grow and maintain their regional economies," said Bruce Katz, the Metropolitan Policy Program's codirector, in an email. In their letter to Senate leaders, Johnson and Rawlings-Blake indicated the conference's own forecast projects that exports will account for one-third of metro areas' economic growth in coming years...

Democrats now control the mayor's office in 18 of the 20 cities that anchor the metro areas that Brookings found derive the most jobs from exports. (The only exceptions are Republicans Kevin Faulconer in San Diego and Tomas Regalado in Miami.)
Brownstein goes on to point out the shift in public opinion on trade.
The unexpected result is that a series of recent surveys have found that Democratic partisans now express more support for free trade than rank-and-file Republicans—inverting the historic party stereotypes. In last month's national NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, a 43 percent to 26 percent plurality of Democrats said that free trade has done more to help than hurt the United States, while Republicans narrowly split in the opposite direction (33 percent said it helped, 36 percent said it hurt)...

The change also reflects the Democrats' diminishing electoral reliance on blue-collar whites generally dubious of free trade and their increasing dependence on both the college-educated whites and minorities who are more open to it.
All of this suggests that the views about trade in the general public are much more complex than how they are typically stereotyped in the media - as well as the current battles over TPP in Congress.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

What We Can/Can't Learn From President Obama's Jump in Favorability

Gallup had some interesting news today. President Obama's favorability rating jumped 4 points this month.


It is important to distinguish this from the President's job approval rating. Here's what Gallup says about that.
A president's favorable ratings are distinct from approval of his performance; job approval ratings generally tend to be lower. For the Obama presidency, Gallup trends show the two measures have changed largely in tandem. As Obama's approval rating has rebounded nine percentage points from a low of 37% last fall, his favorable rating has increased 11 points from 42%.
But what is even more interesting is to take a look at the recent results by party affiliation.


As you can see, there has been almost no change in the President's favorability rating with Republicans and Democrats. Most all of the change has come from Independents - with an increase of 6% in the last month.

What you will always hear from political scientists is that it is not helpful to look at the results of one poll. If I were to suggest that President Obama's favorability rating now stands at 53%, that would be the mistake they are warning against.

But there is something we can take from one poll. If the pollster uses the exact same methodology, the trend lines over time are reliable. So what we can learn from Gallup today is that President Obama's favorability is holding steady with Democrats and increasing pretty significantly with Independents.

The context for all that is interesting to note. Over the last few weeks, the news stories about the President have mainly zeroed in on the disagreement he's having with some Democrats (i.e., Senators Warren, Brown and Sanders) over trade policy. It sure looks to me like Democrats are giving that one a big ol' "meh," while Independents might be liking what they see.

When "Populists" Are More Interested in Fighting the 1% Than in Protecting the 99%

On Wednesday, the Department of Justice announced that five banks pleaded guilty to currency manipulation and six of them will pay $5.8 billion as part of the agreement. Adam Lerner at Politico reported Sen. Elizabeth Warren's response.
“The big banks have been caught red-handed conspiring to manipulate financial markets, and several have even admitted in court that they’re felons — but not a single trader is being held individually accountable, and regulators are stumbling over themselves to exempt the banks from the legally required consequences of their criminal behavior,” Warren said. “That’s not accountability for Wall Street.”
On her first point about not a single trader being held individually accountable, she is simply wrong. From the link above:
As part of its settlement with New York banking superintendent Benjamin Lawsky, Barclays agreed to terminate eight employees engaged in currency trading between London and New York...

Cases against individual traders also may be forthcoming, people with knowledge of the probe have said.
But you might be wondering what she meant by regulators exempting banks from the consequences of their criminal behavior. I'd suggest that Matt Yglesias has the answer to that.
Market regulators have the authority to bar criminal banks from managing mutual funds, corporate pension plans, or other regulated financial entities. But in this case not only has the Securities and Exchange Commission issued waivers to avoid that from happening, the DOJ worked with the banks and regulators to ensure that the criminal case was not officially settled until the waivers were in place.

In other words, the very same Justice Department that proudly insisted a fine wasn't good enough to settle the case also acted to ensure that there would be no practical consequences beyond the fine.
Sounds pretty bad, doesn't it? Until you think about it from the perspective of the people whose mutual funds and pensions are managed by these banks. What do you think happens to them when the banks are barred from managing their accounts? I can guarantee you that a lot of those folks aren't members of the 1% and sure aren't responsible for the criminal actions undertaken by the traders involved. These are the folks the Justice Department was trying to protect.

This case fits a pattern I've seen pretty often over the last few years. As I mentioned before, one of the things that makes these financial institutions "too big to fail" is interconnectivity. This is a perfect example of how that comes into play. When someone like Tim Geithner said that he wanted to ensure a "soft landing" to the whole financial crisis that spurred the Great Recession, his goal was to limit the impact our interventions had on those who were not culpable. In doing so, he has accepted that it created a "moral hazard" for those who were. But given the fact of interconnectivity, the question comes down to whether or not your desire to punish the 1% takes precedence over the need to protect the 99%.

The Nuance of Climate Change Denialism

Recently Jeb Bush said this:
"The climate is changing. I don't think the science is clear on what percentage is man-made and what percentage is natural. It's convoluted," he told roughly 150 people at a house party here Wednesday night. "And for the people to say the science is decided on this is just really arrogant, to be honest with you. It's this intellectual arrogance that now you can't have a conversation about it even."
So he's embraced the scientific fact that the climate is changing. We can't really accuse him of being a true climate change denier.

I would also suggest that he's right...the science isn't clear about the exact percentage of climate change that is man-made and how much is natural. But from there, what he has to say is one hot mess. He makes the subtle suggestion that those who prioritize dealing with climate change are saying that the science is decided on how much is man-made and how much is natural. That's a complete straw man that doesn't exist, but he feels the need to call "arrogant."

What science actually says is that human beings are having a major impact on climate change. Anyone who doesn't accept that is in denial.

When it comes to the 2016 Republican candidates, Sen. Marco Rubio occupies what might be called their own particular brand of "mushy middle."
Humans are not responsible for climate change in the way some of these people out there are trying to make us believe, for the following reason: I believe the climate is changing because there’s never been a moment where the climate is not changing. The question is, what percentage of that … is due to human activity?
He too accepts that the climate is changing (because it's always changing). But apparently he thinks it's an open question whether or not human activity has any impact at all.

When it comes to flat-out denialism, the prize goes to Sen. Ted Cruz.
"The last 15 years, there has been no recorded warming. Contrary to all the theories that – that they are expounding, there should have been warming over the last 15 years. It hasn't happened," said Cruz...

When pressed about the fact that the arctic is melting, and whether that helps prove climate change is real, Cruz dismissed it.

"Other parts are going up. It is not - you know, you always have to be worried about something that is considered a so-called scientific theory that fits every scenario. Climate change, as they have defined it, can never be disproved, because whether it gets hotter or whether it gets colder, whatever happens, they'll say, well, it's changing, so it proves our theory," argued Cruz.
There you have it folks, a rare moment of nuanced disagreement between three Republican candidates for president. But never fear, they dispense with all of those differences when it comes to the question of what government should do about climate change...nothing.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Acting Director of the Civil Rights Division at DOJ: Vanita Gupta

I've made the case previously that the turn-around of the Civil Rights Division at DOJ after it was politicized and decimated by the George W. Bush administration is one of President Obama's most unsung accomplishments. Initially, the President and AG Holder appointed Thomas Perez to head that division. When he became the Secretary of Labor, Debo Adegbile was nominated to be his successor. You might remember that his nomination was derailed when the Fraternal Order of Police objected because he had worked as part of a legal team on Mumia Abu-Jamal’s appeal. Since then, the position has technically been vacant.

But pay attention to that word "technically." Because the "acting" director is a woman named Vanita Gupta.

Prior to working at the Department of Justice, Gupta worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and then for the ACLU's Center for Justice. Of particular note is that in her very first case at the NAACP she successfully led the effort to overturn the wrongful drug convictions of 38 defendants in Tulia, Texas (you'll see her at 0:35 in this trailer for a documentary about what happened).


That is all by way of introduction to the fact that this week Gupta gave a powerful speech on police and justice reform to the Colorado Lawyers Committee Annual Lunch. First of all, here's how she defines the problem.
In the seven months I have been at the Civil Rights Division, I have spent a lot of time with local leaders and community members in cities all across America, including with numerous mothers who have lost their children in officer-involved shootings. The pain, anger, frustration—the lack of trust in the police—is real, and it is profound.

Again and again, people have told me that young people are losing faith in our justice system and view law enforcement as preying on them rather than protecting their loved ones. They talk about how the police don’t value their rights, or indeed, their lives. They talk about being tired of being viewed as criminals first, human beings second.
But Gupta absolutely GOES THERE when she addresses the question of how we got here.
Mistrust can’t be explained away as the kneejerk reaction of the ill-informed or the hyperbolic. It’s in part the product of historical awareness about the role that police have played in enforcing and perpetuating slavery, the Black Codes, lynchings and Jim Crow segregation. As FBI Director James Comey noted, “At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups.”

It is also the product of lived experience, of negative interactions that individuals — or their family members, friends, or neighbors — have had with law enforcement. Something as quietly humiliating as being mistreated during a traffic stop, or being followed in a retail store. These stories can circulate through a neighborhood — or these days, across the nation via the web and social media — and they can build up over time into a painful narrative that divides community members and police.

The lack of trust also undeniably results from our criminal justice policies over the last few decades, and the concentrated impact they have had on communities of color and people living in poverty. Law enforcement practices such as the stopping and frisking of young black men based on stereotypes. Sentencing policies that result in mass incarceration, particularly of people of color. And the devastating consequences that convictions have had on individuals’ ability to find work, secure stable housing and reintegrate as full members of society. These are deliberate policy choices that we made over the last several decades. We bear the responsibility to confront their consequences.
Gupta goes on to recount the work the Civil Rights Division is doing on police reform. During this administration they have:
  1. Prosecuted nearly 400 officers for constitutional violations
  2. Opened 22 investigations into police departments, including Ferguson, Cleveland and Baltimore
  3. Currently enforcing 16 agreements with law enforcement agencies 
She ends by describing the collaborative approach the Civil Rights Division takes to these agreements by working with community members, police officers and political leaders.
Due to the old newsroom axiom of "if it bleeds, it leads," we usually only hear stories about public servants when something goes wrong. But if the best way to promote a liberal agenda is government that works, Ms. Gupta is one of our best champions.