Friday, April 26, 2013

The first what?

Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison famously wrote in 1998 that Bill Clinton was, "white skin notwithstanding...our first black President."  Morrison was writing about the way Clinton was treated during his impeachment, not about his particularly being interested in black issues or helpful to blacks as president.  That did not stop others from taking it that way, and it's probably not an entirely unfair characterization even if Morrison didn't view it that way.

About a year ago, Newsweek's cover depicted Barack Obama with a rainbow-colored halo and with the headline "The First Gay President." That was surprising to me, because we already had a gay president. His name was James Buchanan, and he was about as openly gay as you can be without actually being out.  Jim Loewen had a great piece in Salon about this issue when the story came out.

Really, Obama can't be fairly described as "the first black president" on anything other than half of his actual race.  Aside from some posturing with respect to the Trayvon Martin murder, he hasn't really been there for blacks on a substantive basis.

Don't get me wrong. Obama is a great symbol.  I was happy to vote for him twice, although, if I'm being honest, it mattered less to me that he was black than that he's a Democrat.  That mattered somewhat less than his vision for the future, and what mattered most of all was who his opponents were and what they stood for.  The fact that he is black was a really nice bonus.  But I would not have voted for Alan Keyes or J.C. Watts or Condoleezza Rice.

No, what Obama is, is the first black white president.  Based on the issues that matter to him, based on his conduct in office, it's pretty clear who gets the sugar and who doesn't when Obama is dishing it out.

Consider for a moment, the following:
  • Little to no investigation or reform of Wall Street's destructive practices;
  • Maintenance of an anti-terrorism program that gives little consideration to civil rights;
  • No focus on jobs;
  • Pushing for cuts to Social Security and Medicare;
  • A universal health care program that is impossibly complex and was written by the health insurance industry, when simply expanding Medicare to cover all Americans would have cost a fraction of what the private-only program will cost; and
  • Unending pursuit of a "grand bargain" with the Republicans on deficit reduction while the economy is sputtering.
I don't pretend that these are "black issues" in any real sense. I happen to think they are issues that almost all Americans should care about and ought to be able to agree on.  But the people who care about the places where Obama has put his priorities--wealthy people--are almost entirely white.  Where there has been an opportunity to side with the masses, where almost all black people reside, Obama is nowhere to be found.

So, if we are assigning people to races based on where their priorities lie, that makes Barack Obama the first black white president.  Which makes him not particularly special, in view of all of the other white presidents we've had.

For the record, that doesn't legitimize any of the more than 90% of criticism against him, which boils down to disliking him, or in most of the cases hating him, because he is black.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Dealing with terrorist attacks

I've been thinking a bit about the terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon.  There is a formula for dealing with terrorist attacks, and we need to be reminded from time to time about what it is, since our tendency these days is to engage in the Great American Freakout.

This is advice for ordinary people to follow.

Mourn the dead by allowing yourself to feel sorrow--briefly: days, not weeks--for the loss of life and for the lives that were directly changed.

If it is your job to do so, patch up the wounded.

If it is your job to do so, work to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Otherwise, move on.  Refuse to be terrorized. Live in courage, not fear.

When there is a terrorist attack, don't fetishize it.  If it didn't happen to you, it didn't happen to you. Your world didn't end.  Don't behave as though it did.

These things may be hard to do.  I didn't say it was easy.  But it does work.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Bitter disappointment

I was an enthusiastic supporter of Barack Obama when he ran in 2008, and I am dead-on certain that electing Mitt Romney in 2012 would have produced an economic disaster for the nation in short order.

While I have not supported Obama on every point--I think he's done a poor job of getting us out of Afghanistan; his use of drone strikes against Americans is legally and morally questionable; his failure to close Guantanamo is inexplicable; and his negotiating style could be fairly characterized as spineless--I have remained hopeful that he was trying hard to negotiate difficult political waters and accomplish an agenda with a lot of genuinely crazy people in positions of power and arrayed against him personally.

But today I stand bitterly disappointed.

Social Security is one of the most successful government programs in history.  Not just American history.  History period.  Even though most people don't understand what it is, they recognize its importance for our national economy as well as for millions of individuals who would be destitute in their old age without it.

Social Security is an insurance policy.  The thing that Social Security insures against is living.  Ordinarily, we think of living as a good thing.  I know I do.  But there is a cost of living--you need food, shelter, and clothing for a basic life, and some other things for a happy life, and all of those things cost money.  We pay for these things through work.  It is not just possible but also likely that you will outlive your ability to do useful work to support yourself.

Before Social Security, we paid for life after work in a combination of ways.  One was through savings.  Another was by relying on children and grandchildren to support you in old age. You might rely on charity.  Or, in some places, there were such things as "poor houses," where elderly people were supported, usually by local governments.

If you got sick and only expensive medical care would save you, you usually died.

It doesn't take much to recognize that living beyond your ability to work can be a tough thing, especially if you have no children, or your children cannot afford to care for you, and you have little or no savings.

Social Security was devised to insure against that problem.  By paying a small portion of your lifetime wages into a pool, you are guaranteed to have a minimum foundational income for life--an income that will never run out.  Everyone pays in, and everyone draws out according to complicated formulas that take into account what you paid in, how old you are, and other factors.

Social Security is not a "retirement plan," and if all you have to cover your expenses in old age is Social Security, you're going to be living in poverty.  But it is a minimum foundation, below which we will not allow elderly people to fall.

For nearly 80 years, the Democrats have been protecting Social Security and the Republicans have been complaining about it.  Having managed to destroy the effectiveness of most labor unions, to disassemble the retirement pension system in favor of the 401(k) plan, and to starve the general fisc of the revenues necessary to pay for government, the Republicans have often looked to Social Security as a giant pot of money that could easily be siphoned off for investment on Wall Street, where it could be applied to the One True Purpose of today's GOP:  Getting more money into the hands of the people who have the most already.

Social Security does not contribute to the deficit or the national debt; it is funded entirely through its own taxation, which would be adequate to fund full benefits for the foreseeable future also long as we have reasonable economic growth.

But Social Security does contribute to the general fund.  Right now, Social Security takes in more money than it spends, and it will do so for at least another 20 years, when all of the Baby Boomers will be drawing benefits.  That surplus is invested in government bonds.  What that means is that the government borrows the excess from Social Security instead of borrowing it from other investors.  Those bonds will eventually have to be paid off--but that would be true regardless of whom we borrowed the money from.

Now, back to my disappointment.  Barack Obama has proposed a budget that is based in part on a change to the way in which Social Security benefits are calculated.  As it stands now, SS benefits are adjusted based on the Consumer Price Index, which measures the whole market for goods, but which does not take into account the way in which price changes affect behavior.  As a result, CPI tends to overestimate price inflation for the general public.  Because seniors--especially those who rely mostly on SS income--spend a disproportionate amount of their income on food, shelter, and health care, which are involuntary purchases, and don't usually buy things like cars, large appliances, and electronics, which aren't, the current method of calculation more effectively measures the impact of inflation of that income.  (In fact, if anything, for seniors CPI tends to underestimate inflation because prices tend to increase more rapidly for basic items than for luxuries, especially in hard economic times.)

Obama is proposing to switch to a method called "chained CPI," which does take into account how price changes affect behavior.  The practical impact of such a change will be to reduce benefits by slowing cost-of-living adjustments to SS benefits by as much as 0.6% per year.  That doesn't seem like much, but over the next 30 years, if benefits are cut by 0.6% per year, SS beneficiaries will lose 20% of the ground they would have gained if no change were made.

For the poorest SS beneficiaries, that's a brutal cut.  And it's one that the Republicans have advocated for a long time, partially to make more borrowed money available to the government, but mostly because it undermines the effectiveness of the Social Security system and with it the confidence that the American people have in the program.

Which forces me to ask the question:  If a Democrat is willing to do that, what's the point of electing Democrats?

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The trouble with bullies

The trouble with bullies is that the only effective approach to them requires a lot of courage and personal risk.

This is not an essay about the schoolyard, which is what I think of when I hear the term "bully."  Bullying, especially the schoolyard variety, has gotten a lot of negative media coverage lately.  But today's topic is about bullying of another sort.

I will have more to say about the Arkansas General Assembly over the next few weeks, but I want to introduce the theme I'm developing by reference to what has been going on in that legislative body lately.  The North Carolina General Assembly decided recently to get in on the fun, also.

A bully uses his apparent power to impose his will on the comparatively and apparently powerless.

The levers of government, from the lowliest homeowners' association board to the highest court in the land, are the very essence of power.  The State--the Government--has the apparent power to control its citizens' lives.  Long ago, we determined that a just government derives its power from the consent of the governed; that proper governments are instituted for the purpose of mediating our social relations to maximize, or at least optimize, our personal freedom; and that the best form of government to institute is a government of the people, by the people, for the people. 

Lately, with the Republican takeover of the Arkansas General Assembly--and of the same body in North Carolina--we have seen a sea change in those bodies' focus.  The Republicans who govern us are bent on imposing their particular, and perhaps peculiar, religious views upon us, and on conforming the law to their own prejudices.  There have been numerous bills relating to abortion, all of them focused on making legal abortions more difficult to obtain, most of them on spurious grounds, and all of them seeking, in name, to solve some other "problem," consequences be damned.

Perhaps the most egregious of these is the movement to de-fund Planned Parenthood.  Planned Parenthood is an abortion provider.  There is no getting around that.  But abortions constitute only 3% of what that organization does and 0% of what the government funds that flow to it cover.

Planned Parenthood is primarily focused on delivering health care to women, regardless of ability to pay.  The Arkansas legislature, like others before it, is so hell-bent on stopping abortion by any means necessary (other than education about birth control; we can't have that), all in the name of protecting the unborn, that it is willing to consign thousands of already-born Arkansas women to unnecessary, life-altering or -threatening medical conditions, handicaps, even premature death, all from causes that are wholly unrelated to abortion.  For what purpose?  Because they don't like that Planned Parenthood also occasionally provides a legal procedure to some of those women, all of whom want it and all of whom have run the gamut of a number of unnecessary "precautions" to make certain they are really sure they want to terminate their pregnancies.

I haven't seen it yet, but the "mandated rape" provision--the mandated trans-vaginal ultrasound, which requires as a precondition for an abortion that the provider forcibly insert a wand through the woman's vagina and cervix and into her uterus for the purpose of detecting the presence of the fetus--is sure to make an appearance soon if it has not already.  I call it mandated rape because one definition of rape is the insertion of an object into a woman's vagina without her consent.

The legislators' motivation to pass these bills is open and obvious:  They believe that God is telling them to pass these laws.  That makes them theocrats.

Abortion is hardly their only focus.  A new bill would mandate that each public school require a one-minute silent period during the school day for "reflection, prayer, or other silent activity."  The reality is that students who wish to pray have ample opportunities throughout the school day to do so.  The purpose of this bill is to give students an excuse to be seen praying and--knowing as we all do the propensities of children as well as the religious sensibilities of the Arkansas public--to bully those who choose to engage in "another silent activity."

In North Carolina, a move is afoot to declare the ability of the state government and creatures of the state government (cities, towns, and counties) to declare an officially sanctioned religion.  Citing the Tenth Amendment, the sponsors of this bill claim that the Constitution's bar on Establishment applies only to Congress, not to the States.  Apparently they forgot about the Fourteenth Amendment, which caused the protections afforded by the Bill of Rights to be applied to the States.

These people are bullies.  They are using, or rather abusing, their power to impose their views and mores on others.  They are using the government as an instrument of restricting freedoms rather than guarding them.  It is a perversion of power of the highest order.  It is no less than a treason against our way of life.

We Americans are diverse in almost every way you can think of.  We are a plural society in matters of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, history, immigration status, and many others.  What unites us are our common beliefs in equality before the law, in personal freedom, in deliberative action, in majority rule tempered by respect for minority rights, and in the due process of law as the highest expression of the fundamental fairness of a democratic state.  Those things are stronger than any racial or ethnic difference, or religious dispute, or national origin, or any other point that divides us.

What those who control the Arkansas legislature have forgotten is that the government belongs to all of us, and that they are sent to do their jobs for all their constituents, not for the purpose of tormenting disfavored minorities or imposing their narrow view of what God wants upon those who do not share their...enlightenment.  We have problems that affect all of us--problems that are screaming for attention.  Joblessness, poorly performing schools, crumbling infrastructure, lack of educational opportunities, lack of access to quality healthcare--all of these things are being systematically ignored in favor of the pet issues of people who spend all of their time thinking about how horribly immoral everyone else is acting.

When a bully takes your lunch money, he's not worried about whether you have to go hungry or not. He's only thinking about how he'll spend that money he didn't earn.

It's clear that the GOP-led Arkansas General Assembly doesn't care how many of their constituents go hungry, or need medical care, or can't get clean drinking water, or drop out of school, or can't read or use a computer, as long as those legislators can get down on their knees and pray to their God about how wonderfully they have served Him by making more abortions illegal.

They are bullies.  Fighting them will take courage and personal risk. Let's start now.