Friday, February 26, 2010

"... Obama,... campaigned against the “dark side” of the war on terror;...America must lead by example as a nation of laws,"



OP-ED COLUMNIST

An Eye for an Eye

Roger  Cohen
Published: February 25, 2010


MADRID — Back in 1976, a Chilean hit squad assassinated former Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier and an American colleague in Washington. Letelier was one of the most prominent opponents of the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

A rough equivalent today would be China orchestrating the elimination in the United States of a prominent Uighur opponent, or the Russians assassinating a leading Chechen on a Georgetown street.
Needless to say, the U.S. government would be outraged at such extrajudicial executions on American soil. We don’t want to live in a world where nations blow up enemies, or smother them with pillows, in other countries with which they’re not at war.
But nor, of course, can we do less than everything possible to avert another 9/11, and that’s where things get murky.
So let’s make a few things clear. Since 9/11, with greater intensity under the Obama administration, the United States has wordlessly lifted the ban in effect since the Ford administration on targeted killings by U.S. intelligence officers. Such killings are now taking place almost daily under a C.I.A.-directed covert program. Drones firing Hellfire missiles have eliminated several Al Qaeda leaders.
The drone strikes are concentrated on Pakistan, with which America is not at war. The Obama administration has declined to say anything about this doctrine of targeted killing. It’s not clear how you get on a list to be eliminated; who makes that call; whether the decision is based on past acts (revenge, say, for the killing of C.I.A. agents in Khost, Afghanistan) or only on corroborated intelligence demonstrating that the target is planning a terrorist attack; what, if any, the battlefield limits are; and what, if any, is the basis in law.
The closest I can find to an official accounting of the drone program was from Senator John Kerry last October: “I am convinced that it is highly circumscribed now, very carefully controlled within a hierarchy of decision-making, significantly limited in its collateral damage, and profoundly successful in the impact it has had in putting Al Qaeda on the run. It is why we can now say that perhaps 14 of the top 20 Al Qaeda leaders have been eliminated.”
That success is significant, even if “on the run” is hyperbole. But the “collateral damage” is also substantial and has a cascade terrorist-recruitment effect. On balance, President Obama, who campaigned against the “dark side” of the war on terror and has insisted that America must lead by example as a nation of laws, owes Americans an accounting of his targeted killing program.
Revenge killings don’t pass the test for me. They’re unacceptable under international law. I want to know that any target is selected because there is verifiable intelligence that he’s actively planning a terrorist attack on the United States or its allies; that the danger is pressing; that arrest is impossible; and that civilian lives are not wantonly risked.
The bar of pre-emptive self-defense is then passed. A pinpoint strike is better than the Afghan or Iraqi scenarios. But that bar must be high. America departs at its peril from its principles.
I know, terrorists have no rule book, no borders and no compunction. The global war on terror (GWOT) is untidy. Still, the current accountability void for U.S. targeted killing is unacceptable.
America is treading a familiar path. Israel pioneered the use of unmanned drones to kill Hamas operatives. Gerald Steinberg wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal that “U.S. forces have copied Israel’s technique with their own drone killings of jihadi terrorists.” But, of course, the United States is not Israel. It’s not a small nation, surrounded by more numerous enemies, at war since its foundation against foes bent on its destruction. It’s not consumed by the specter of nonexistence.
Vicky Divoll, a former C.I.A. lawyer, told The Los Angeles Times: “At one time, the United States did not kill in the shadows — until we became as afraid for our lives as the Israelis have been for decades.” That’s right — and unacceptable. Fear cannot be a global license for the United States of America to kill.
My doubt level that the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, was behind the murder in Dubai last month of the senior Hamas operative, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, is about that of the Dubai police chief who said he was “99 percent, if not 100 percent” certain that Israel was responsible. An eye for an eye: al-Mabhouh was the murderer of two Israeli soldiers, as well as a shipper of arms to Hamas. I won’t shed a tear.
But what a messy trail: all that video, European passports belonging to Israelis whose lives are now at risk, diplomatic fallout. So what, argues Steinberg, who teaches political science at Bar Ilan University, al-Mabhouh was “probably making arrangements for the next round of attacks.”
Note the “probably:” That’s insufficient grounds for extrajudicial execution. Israel, too, must at a minimum have specific intelligence that a target is planning an imminent terrorist attack. Revenge is a blind alley.
And America must lead by its own — not a far more vulnerable ally’s — example or it will end up eyeless in GWOT.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Canadian Response to USA Hockey Team Win

Good morning!

As a special bonus funny, we offer Canada's response to the U.S. hockey team's win.
(Courtesy FUSE)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

America's Dirty Little Secret: Who's Really Poor in America?


Every Tuesday the Huffington Post lets me post a featured piece. Mostly I write about jobs, especially the issue of 'real unemployment', and trade, where I worry over the extremely adverse effects which unfair globalization is having on American workers.
Two old friends, civil rights activist David Mixner and former U.S. Senator (and my oft co-author) Don Riegle (D-MI), believe that in the economic recovery, not enough attention is being given to 'who's really poor' now. David and Don have for years advised me -- and others -- on the issue of poverty in America, and they are worried that too many people, and especially too many people in the administration and Congress, are missing this imperative.
To help make their point, they referred me to poverty activist Marsha Timpson, who describes today's poor as "America's dirty little secret, hidden in the backyards of America's shining homes, the hollows, the reservations, the border towns and the dark ghettos of the city where they are the lie of the American dream."
I agree with my friends, and with Ms. Timpson's view, and everyone else should as well, for right now in America:
  • At least 50 million people are ill-fed -- up from 37 million just a year ago -- including 17 million children. Hunger in America is now at an all-time high, and there are currently entire national geographic regions -- the very large 15-state 'South' being one of them -- where more than half of all public school students are poor and ill-fed.
Although I myself grew up in a fairly hardscrabble environment, as the father of a daughter who was in fact able to create a successful life from the opportunities her mother and I could give her, it is hard for me to imagine what it must be like to have your child needy and hungry. Yet all of us need to 'imagine' this, because each night in America millions of children do in fact go to bed hungry and under-nourished, while also lacking proper housing, needed clothing, and the basic education required to develop and ultimately find gainful employment. And while I wholeheartedly support the First Lady's new "Let's Move" effort to improve the nutrition of America's children, we must first react to basic hunger rather than to food quality.
  • 30% of the nation's 50 million homeowners own a home whose value is below its mortgage balance, and this number could rise to an almost unbelievable 50% by year-end 2011. It would cost about $745 billion, more than the size of the original 2008 bank bailout, to restore these borrowers to the point where they were breaking even, which there is no obvious political will to find right now.
  • Despite the truly dismal 'real unemployment' figures with which most everyone now agrees -- a staggering 30 million workers and 19% of the labor force -- very little attention is being paid to the particularly adverse effects the recession is having on people of color, recent immigrants, and out-of school youth. And almost no one is acknowledging the sad reality that even the nation's 130 million full-time workers have had an average economic loss of 15% just since December 2007 -- an average effective work week of 34 hours rather than 40 -- which means that the number of unemployed workers, measured economically, is actually as high as 50 million.
The overwhelming problem today for most workers isn't this recession, as horrible as it is -- it's the fact that for every earned income level except the top 10%, average household income hasn't changed a bit for 10 years, and that for the bottom 60% of wage earners it hasn't changed for more than 20 years. Through economic expansions and recessions -- and bull and bear markets -- alike, 90% of workers in America have been standing still earnings-wise.
  • And 100 million people, fully one-third of the entire U.S. population, are at or below "200% of the federal poverty line of $21,834 for a family of four", which is a needs-measure made lame by the fact that no family of four can actually comfortably live on such a low annual income.
**********
The best response to this scourge would be for our government to embrace in today's troubled time the same "economic bill of rights" that FDR, in his last State of the Union Speech in January 1944, demanded for his.
Roosevelt's "bill" sought to guarantee, in addition to health care and education, rights to:
  • "a job with a living wage...that would earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
  • "protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment; and
  • "a decent home".
And with his typical sensitivity, FDR concluded his last SOTUS, when he knew that he was dying, by saying that, "We cannot be content, no matter how high the general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people -- whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth -- is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed and insecure."
Until we in this time include the eradication of poverty as part of our economic recovery efforts, as FDR tried to do in his time, no matter how much we attempt to rebuild the nation's economy through better trade practices, enhanced workers' rights, and investments in infrastructure and the 'green economy', tens of millions of Americans, literally, will still be left impoverished.
In making this effort, and thus in trying to determine "who's really poor in America" so that we can assist them, it helps to think of America as a doughnut, with the 'hole' in the doughnut being, at any point in time, the middle class (and the elites) and with the dough-part being those Americans who aspire to get there.
When our ancestors got off their boats at Ellis Island or on the West Coast, the American doughnut was a fat one with a relatively tiny hole, because almost all of them were impoverished 'outsiders' looking to find their individual American Dream. The doughnut's hole grew relatively larger over the next 50 to 100 years as the economy grew, and then with the widespread prosperity that came with the end of the Second World War, it ballooned in size as the middle class ballooned.
In the two decades after the War, with a burgeoning middle class clearly in hand, our government, in order to help those Americans still living on the outer ring, established very powerful employment & training, education, home mortgage, and small business assistance programs, while freely allowing labor unions to advance and protect workers' rights.
The problem with how we have reacted so far to the Great Recession of 2007 is that most of the recovery programs are, as in the '50s and '60s, only for those Americans living in the outer ring: programs such as "cash for clunkers", first-time homebuyer credits, expanded Pell Grants, etc. In 2010, however, after decades of wide-spread wage stagnation, the entire middle class needs help as well, and the simple proof of this is that overall income inequality in America is now the greatest since 1928, when we first began to measure it.
Without an immediate all-of-government commitment to creating upwards of 30 million new jobs (not the 9 million that the administration has identified), without stimulus efforts that specifically target the entire struggling middle class, and without very specific initiatives aimed at breaking the back of general wage stagnation, there is not even a medium-term prospect of anything approaching real full employment and healthy economic growth that benefits all Americans.
So, the answer to the question of 'who's really poor' now is that we all are in one way or another, because, as FDR would have said if he was here, "some [way too large] fraction of our people is."
Addressing this reality -- this now virtual pandemic of poverty -- must be at the core of our current economic recovery efforts, because a vibrant middle class that grows from the bottom up will always be central to the continued health of America's democratic society. 
Leo Hindery, Jr. chairs the US Economy/Smart Globalization Initiative at the New America Foundation and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the former chief executive of AT&T Broadband and other major media and telecom companies.

Obama's Plan - How'll It Works For a Family of Four


The White House
The President's Proposal
February 22, 2010

Policies to Improve Affordability and Accountability

Example for a family of four with income of $66,000:

Maximum percent of income paid for premiums: 9.5%

Percent of costs paid by health insurance plan: 70%

Penalty for remaining uninsured: (in 2016) the higher of $695 (with indexed
increases) or 2.5% of income

Hardship exemption - threshold income below which the penalty is waived: The
income tax filing threshold ($9,350 for a single or $18,700 for a married
couple in 2009)

http://www.whitehouse.gov/health-care-meeting/proposal

Comment:  The greatest significance of President Obama's health care reform
proposal released today is that he has now formally placed his stamp of
approval on the fundamental policies already contained in the House and
Senate reform bills. While remaining silent on some of the third rail issues
(public option, Medicare buy-in, pregnancy termination, etc.), he and his
staff merely tweaked the bills and added insurance premium rate review,
whatever that's worth, and some rhetoric on waste, fraud, and abuse.

His proposal still falls far short on two of the most important goals of
reform: 1) insuring everyone, and 2) ensuring that health care is affordable
for each of us. Merely tweaking the Senate version, which is what they did,
could not have attained these goals since the most effective policies were
already traded away before serious negotiations began.

That said, let's look at what the President expects a family of four with an
income of $66,000 to pay for health care. The premium contribution would be
9.5% of income, or $6270 for the basic plan with an actuarial value of 70%.
If they wanted or needed a better plan, they would have to pay the full
difference in the premium. At an actuarial value of 70%, they would also
have to pay an average of 30% of all health care costs. This can vary
considerably because of plan design in the form of deductibles, copayments,
coinsurance, non-covered benefits, stop loss, out-of-network care exempt
from stop loss, and other factors. If they either elected not to or were
unable to pay the premium, they would have to pay a penalty of $1650, but
then, of course, they would have no protection at all against potential
health care costs.

Clearly, President Obama has not done any better than Congress in protecting
families from financial hardship should they have the misfortune of
developing significant medical problems. Unaffordable underinsurance is not
the change that we needed.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Leadership, Obama Style, and the Looming Losses in 2010: Pretty Speeches, Compromised Values, and the Quest for the Lowest Common Denominator

As the president's job performance numbers and ratings on his handling of virtually every domestic issue have fallen below 50 percent, the Democratic base has become demoralized, and Independents have gone from his source of strength to his Achilles Heel, it's time to reflect on why. The conventional wisdom from the White House is those "pesky leftists" -- those bloggers and Vermont Governors and Senators who keep wanting real health reform, real financial reform, immigration reform not preceded by a year or two of raids that leave children without parents, and all the other changes we were supposed to believe in.
Somehow the president has managed to turn a base of new and progressive voters he himself energized like no one else could in 2008 into the likely stay-at-home voters of 2010, souring an entire generation of young people to the political process. It isn't hard for them to see that the winners seem to be the same no matter who the voters select (Wall Street, big oil, big Pharma, the insurance industry). In fact, the president's leadership style, combined with the Democratic Congress's penchant for making its sausage in public and producing new and usually more tasteless recipes every day, has had a very high toll far from the left: smack in the center of the political spectrum.
What's costing the president and courting danger for Democrats in 2010 isn't a question of left or right, because the president has accomplished the remarkable feat of both demoralizing the base and completely turning off voters in the center. If this were an ideological issue, that would not be the case. He would be holding either the middle or the left, not losing both.
What's costing the president are three things: a laissez faire style of leadership that appears weak and removed to everyday Americans, a failure to articulate and defend any coherent ideological position on virtually anything, and a widespread perception that he cares more about special interests like bank, credit card, oil and coal, and health and pharmaceutical companies than he does about the people they are shafting.
The problem is not that his record is being distorted. It's that all three have more than a grain of truth. And I say this not as one of those pesky "leftists." I say this as someone who has spent much of the last three years studying what moves voters in the middle, the Undecideds who will hear whichever side speaks to them with moral clarity.
Leadership, Obama Style
Consider the president's leadership style, which has now become clear: deliver a moving speech, move on, and when push comes to shove, leave it to others to decide what to do if there's a conflict, because if there's a conflict, he doesn't want to be anywhere near it.
Health care is a paradigm case. When the president went to speak to the Democrats last week on Capitol Hill, he exhorted them to pass the bill. According to reports, though, he didn't mention the two issues in the way of doing that, the efforts of Senators like Ben Nelson to use this as an opportunity to turn back the clock on abortion by 25 years, and the efforts of conservative and industry-owned Democrats to eliminate any competition for the insurance companies that pay their campaign bills. He simply ignored both controversies and exhorted.
Leadership means heading into the eye of the storm and bringing the vessel of state home safely, not going as far inland as you can because it's uncomfortable on the high seas. This president has a particular aversion to battling back gusting winds from his starboard side (the right, for the nautically challenged) and tends to give in to them. He just can't tolerate conflict, and the result is that he refuses to lead.
We have seen the same pattern of pretty speeches followed by empty exhortations on issue after issue. The president has, on more than one occasion, gone to Wall Street or called in its titans (who have often just ignored him and failed to show up) to exhort them to be nice to the people they're foreclosing at record rates, yet he has done virtually nothing for those people. His key program for preventing foreclosures is helping 4 percent of those "lucky" enough to get into it, not the 75 percent he promised, and many of the others are having their homes auctioned out from right under them because of some provisions in the fine print. One in four homeowners is under water and one in six is in danger of foreclosure. Why we're giving money to banks instead of two-year loans -- using the model of student loans -- to homeowners to pay their mortgages (on which they don't have to pay interest or principal for two years, while requiring their banks to renegotiate their interest rates in return for saving the banks from "toxic assets") is something the average person doesn't understand. And frankly, I don't understand it, either. I thought I voted Democratic in the last election.
Same with the credit card companies. Great speech about the fine print. Then the rates tripled.
The president has exhorted the banks, who are getting zero-interest money, to give more of it to small businesses. But they have no incentives to do that. There are too many high-yield, reasonably low risk investments to make with zero-interest federal loans. I wouldn't mind a few billion to play around with right now myself, and I can't say I'd start with some guy who wants to start his own heating and air company, or an existing small business owner who is hanging on by his fingernails in tough economic times. I'd put my money in something like emerging markets, or maybe Canada. (Have you noticed how well Canadian equities are doing lately?) Or perhaps Chinese wind turbines. (Oh, we're investing there already with stimulus funds.)
The time for exhortation is over. FDR didn't exhort robber barons to stem the redistribution of wealth from working Americans to the upper 1 percent, and neither did his fifth cousin Teddy. Both men told the most powerful men in the United States that they weren't going to rip off the American people any more, and they backed up their words with actions. Teddy Roosevelt was clear that capital gains taxes should be high relative to income taxes because we should reward work, not "gambling in stocks." This President just doesn't have the stomach to make anyone do anything they don't want to do (except women to have unwanted babies because they can't afford an abortion or live in a red state and don't have an employer who offers insurance), and his advisors are enabling his most troubling character flaw, his conflict-avoidance.
Like most Americans I talk to, when I see the president on television, I now change the channel the same way I did with Bush. With Bush, I couldn't stand his speeches because I knew he meant what he said. I knew he was going to follow through with one ignorant, dangerous, or misguided policy after another. With Obama, I can't stand them because I realize he doesn't mean what he says -- or if he does, he just doesn't have the fire in his belly to follow through. He can't seem to muster the passion to fight for any of what he believes in, whatever that is. He'd make a great queen -- his ceremonial addresses are magnificent -- but he prefers to fly Air Force One at 60,000 feet and "stay above the fray."
It's the job of the president to be in the fray. It's his job to lead us out of it, not to run from it. It's his job to make the tough decisions and draw lines in the sand. But Obama really doesn't seem to want to get involved in the contentious decisions. They're so, you know, contentious. He wants us all to get along. Better to leave the fights to the Democrats in Congress since they're so good at them. He's like an amateur boxer who got a coupon for a half day of training with Angelo Dundee after being inspired by the tapes of Mohammed Ali. He got "float like a butterfly" in the morning but never made it to "sting like a bee."
Do you think Americans ought to have one choice of health insurance plans the insurance companies don't control, or don't you? I don't want to hear that it would sort of, kind of, maybe be your preference, all other things being equal. Do you think we ought to use health care as a Trojan Horse for right-wing abortion policies? Say something, for God's sake.
He doesn't need a chief of staff. He needs someone to shake him until he feels something strongly enough not just to talk about it but to act. He's increasingly appearing to the public, and particularly to swing voters, like Dukakis without the administrative skill. And although he is likely to squeak by with a personal victory in 2012 if the economy improves by then, he may well do so with a Republican Congress. But then I suppose he'll get the bipartisanship he always wanted.
No Vision, No Message
The second problem relates to the first. The president just doesn't want to enunciate a progressive vision of where this country should be heading in the 21st century, particularly a progressive vision of government and its relation to business. He doesn't want to ruffle what he believes to be the feathers of the American people, to offer them a coherent, emotionally resonant, values-driven message -- starting with an alternative to Ronald Reagan's message that government is the problem and not the solution -- and to see if they might actually follow him.
He doesn't want to talk about social issues, even though they predictably have gotten in the way of health care reform and will do the same on one issue after another. Abortion? You don't advance a progressive position by giving a center-right speech at Notre Dame that emphasizes cutting back on the number of abortions without mentioning that sex education and birth control might be useful means to that end, mumbling something about a conscience clause that suggests that pharmacists don't have to fill birth control prescriptions if it offends their sensibilities, and allowing states to use health care reform to set back the rights of women and couples to decide when to start their families based on somebody else's faith. If you believe that freedom includes the freedom to decide when you will or won't have a child, say it, say it with moral conviction, and follow it up with action. Perhaps something as simple as this: "I won't sign a health bill into law that forces women and couples to have a child they did not intend and are not ready to parent because of the dictates of someone else's faith or conscience." You know what? A message of that sort wins by 25 points nationally, and you can speak it in Southern and win with evangelical Christians in the deep south if you speak to them honestly in the language of faith. That shouldn't be hard for a president who is a religious Christian.
Gays? Virtually all Americans are for repealing don't ask/don't tell (except for conservatives who haven't yet come to terms with their own homosexuality -- but don't tell them that, or at least don't ask). This one's a no-brainer. Tell Congress you want a bill on your desk by January 1, and announce that you have serious questions about the constitutionality of the current policy and won't enforce it until your Justice Department has had time to study it. Don't keep firing gay Arabic interpreters. But that would require not just giving the pretty speech on how we're all equal in the eyes of God and we should all be equal in the eyes of the law (a phrase he might want to try sometime). It would require actually doing something that might anger a small percentage of the population on the right, and that's just too hard for this president to do. It's one thing to acknowledge and respect the positions of people who hold different points of view. It's another to capitulate to them.
Immigration? Joe Wilson yells, "You lie." So instead of acting like a man and going after Wilson on the spot (the man just attacked him in front of the entire nation in a joint session of Congress), he accepts his apology the next day, and a day later rewards Wilson for his incivility and bigotry by tightening the rules so that illegal immigrants can't even buy insurance themselves on the health care exchange the Democrats are creating sometime between 2013 and 2025 (depending on how many seats they lose in the meantime, and hence how long, if ever, it takes for the exchange to get set up).
Good policy? No. Not only is it inhumane -- can you imagine being really sick or in terrible pain but being too afraid even to go to a clinic because you might be deported? -- but it's a public health hazard for sick people not to get care and spread their illnesses, a drain on American taxpayers as illegal immigrants who finally have no choice but to find their way, when they're incredibly ill, to emergency rooms or public clinics, and a despicable policy toward their children, many of whom are American citizens, but who in either case shouldn't have to be sick, in pain, and without preventive care as their bodies and minds are developing, no matter where their parents come from.
Is it good politics? No. During the election I tested messages on just this issue, and a strong progressive message beat the most convincing anti-immigrant message we could throw at it by 10 points. Two weeks ago, I tested messages on just this issue as it applied to health care, and that margin had doubled.
If you just talk sensibly with Americans, they are sensible people. But ask them one-dimensional polling questions like, "Do you think illegal immigrants should get health care?" and you'll entirely miss the art of the possible.
Jobs? Watch for a $25 billion plan that makes good political theatre and that every economist I know says will move the unemployment rate from 10.0 percent to 9.95 percent. Not enough to save 30 seats in November. And not enough to save a generation of families from financial ruin and lower education, higher unemployment, and poorer health for the rest of their -- and their children's -- lives.
The problem with the president's strategic team is that they don't understand the difference between compromising on policy and compromising on core values. When it comes to policies, listen all you want to the Stones: "You can't always get what you want" (although it would be nice if the administration tried sometime). But on issues of principle -- like allowing regressive abortion amendments to be tacked onto a health care reform bill -- get some stones. Make your case to the American people, make it evocatively, and draw the line in the sand. That's how you earn people's respect. That's the only thing that will bring Independents back.
And that's where the problem of message comes in. This White House has no coherent message on anything. The message on health care reform changed even more frequently than the interest rates on credit cards last Spring, and turned a 70-30 winning issue into its current 30-50 status with the public. Last week on the Sunday news shows, I remember watching in disbelief as Larry Summers smugly told the 15 million Americans out of work that the recession was definitively over and that all economists agree. Then Christina Romer, another of the President's chief economic advisors, announced on the next show that the recession is definitely not over.
That's simply inexcusable. The least two members of the economic team can do before they fan out on the Sunday morning shows is to agree on whether we're in a recession, how it relates to joblessness, and how to talk about it sensitively without seeming out of touch. That's the job of the White House messaging team, which has been AWOL since at least the start of the health care battle last Spring.
It's the same problem we've seen with messaging the deficit. Are deficits good -- we're supposed to deficit spend our way out of a severe recession, right? -- or bad -- they're a drag on the economy and stealing from the next generation. So which are they? How about telling the American people, at the very least, when they're good and when they're bad, not flipping back and forth in the same sentence between deficit spending and deficit reduction.
To be honest, I don't know what the president believes on anything, and I'm not alone among American voters. He introduced his recent job summit by saying that even in these times, the role of government should be limited. Really? That was a nicely nuanced reinforcement of the ideology of limited, ineffective government promulgated by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Unfortunately, it runs against all the available data and everything Democrats have stood for since FDR.
Abortion? Who knows. Gays? I suspect intellectually he believes in equal rights but deep down he thinks they're icky. Something is sure holding him back from doing the obvious. Immigrants? He probably has an opinion, but he's not going to waste political capital on them; he sold them out in 15 seconds on health care. Foreclosures? Nice speeches, and I'm sure it really concerns him when he hears the stories of families firsthand. But not enough to divert the cash from the lenders to the borrowers. And the problem is, the average American knows it. Job creation? Would be nice, and I presume he believes that people who want to work ought to be able to work. But when 700,000 people were losing their jobs a month in his first few months of office and over millions have lost their jobs on his watch (a process, of course, initiated by his predecessor, whose name, to my knowledge, he has not uttered since entering office), three letters should have come to mind: W - P - A. President Roosevelt had no legs to stand on, but he sure had spine.
The Politics of the Lowest Common Denominator
And capping off all of these aspects of the president's leadership style is his preference for the lowest common denominator. That means you don't really have to fight, you don't have to take anybody on, you don't take any risks. You just find what the public is so upset about that even the Republicans would stipulate to it if forced to (e.g., that excluding people from health care because they have "pre-existing conditions" is something we can't continue to tolerate) and build it into whatever plan the special interests can hammer out around it.
Unfortunately, what Democrats just can't seem to understand is that the politics of the lowest common denominator is always a losing politics. It sends a meta-message that you're weak -- nothing more, nothing less -- and that's the cross the Democrats have had to bear since they "lost China" 60 years ago. And in fact, it is weak.
Want health care reform? Let Congress work it out, and whatever comes out, call it a victory. It's telling that when the Senate triumphantly announced that it had the 60 votes for cloture on Friday, insurance stocks hit a 52-year peak.
Energy? Okay, if you don't really want to mess with the oil and coal industries, let the caps slip higher and higher and industry will cut pollution around the edges. It won't really solve the problem, but it's the golden mean between the right thing to do and the wrong thing to do, which is the essence of Obampromise. It also hamstrings you in Copenhagen, but oh well, they could use a little global warming there this time of year anyway. Have you noticed it's cold as hell over there?
Financial regulation? The president's all for the good stuff: regulating derivatives and other fancy financial products no one but the people making bundles off of them who crashed the economy (and now run it) understand. Tell bankers the days of wine and roses are over. But if we have to have half-reform so Goldman Sachs is willing to keep sending its best and brightest through the revolving door at Treasury, that's okay; the Dow is up. So jobs are bleak and the average American is enraged that Wall Street had a bumper year -- with record bonuses -- as they're losing their homes. But you know the old adage about a half a loaf.
That's in fact what the health care debate is over. We shouldn't have had to settle for half a loaf. If the president had simply placed appropriate blame on the health insurance industry for its pre-existing conditions, it's cutting off care for breast cancer victims in the middle of treatment, and its doubling our premiums and co-pays during the Bush years, he would have harnessed populist anger and pushed this bill through six months ago, and it would have looked like the change we were told to believe in. But if you cut backroom deals with every special interest that is part of the problem and offer the American people no coherent message while the other side is messaging straight out of the messaging memo written by Frank Luntz ("government takeover," "a bureaucrat between you and your doctor"), you can expect half a loaf. And the other half will be paid for by middle class taxpayers, as in the Senate bill, which includes provisions like taxing good middle class tax plans like PPOs, which will disappear as soon as insurance companies and big businesses have the excuse of the missing tax break. Remind me, when we've just had the largest transfer of wealth to the upper 1 percent of the country from working and middle class Americans in a century, why it would be such a terrible thing instead, as in the House bill, to ask people who make over a million dollars a year to pony up for the health care of their (and their friends') housekeepers, instead of taking away health care plans union workers traded for salary increases?
The president's biggest success has been on the international stage: He's not George W. Bush, and he's eloquent to boot. He's done a great deal with that eloquence to speak to Muslims around the world and to make clear to others in the international community that America is back -- mostly. But that international community is just starting to learn that his eloquence doesn't always have much behind it.
Am I being too hard on the president? He's certainly done many good things. But it would be hard to name a single thing President Obama has done domestically that any other Democrat wouldn't have done if he or she were president following George W. Bush (e.g., signing the children's health insurance bill that Congress is about to gut to pay for worse care for kids under the health insurance exchange, if it ever happens), and there's a lot he hasn't done that every other Democrat who ran for president would have done.
Obama, like so many Democrats in Congress, has fallen prey to the conventional Democratic strategic wisdom: that the way to win the center is to tack to the center.
But it doesn't work that way.
You want to win the center? Emanate strength. Emanate conviction. Lead like you know where you're going (and hopefully know what you're talking about).
People in the center will follow if you speak to their values, address their ambivalence (because by definition, on a wide range of issues, they're torn between the right and left), and act on what you believe. FDR did it. LBJ did it. Reagan did it. Even George W. Bush did it, although I wish he hadn't.
But you have to believe something.
I don't honestly know what this president believes. But I believe if he doesn't figure it out soon, start enunciating it, and start fighting for it, he's not only going to give American families hungry for security a series of half-loaves where they could have had full ones, but he's going to set back the Democratic Party and the progressive movement by decades, because the average American is coming to believe that what they're seeing right now is "liberalism," and they don't like what they see. I don't, either.
What's they're seeing is weakness, waffling, and wandering through the wilderness without an ideological compass. That's a recipe for going nowhere fast -- but getting there by November.
Drew Westen, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies, and author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.

ioB c d 8n 0 n/dp/1586484257" target="_hplink">The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Band-Aids, Bipartisanship and Baby-Steps: How Not to Deal With a Jobs Crisis


Arianna Huffington

Posted: February 17, 2010 07:43 PM

"You can't cross a chasm in two small jumps," said WWI-era British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. And you can't cross it in a series of little steps either.
On the first anniversary of the passage of the stimulus bill, the country's best economic research firms agree that the often-derided bill has added 1.6 million to 1.8 million jobs -- with more on the way. This is obviously good news. But it shows how monumental a chasm we are facing that, even with those jobs, unemployment is still hovering around 10 percent -- and real unemployment at around 17 percent.
With 15 million people out of work (and if we count the underemployed and those too discouraged to look for work, 26 million), and with six unemployed jobseekers for every opening, it's no wonder the New York Times describes the jobs bill taking shape in the Senate as "so puny as to be meaningless."
Less than a month ago, during his State of the Union speech, President Obama declared, "jobs must be our No. 1 focus in 2010." So why is there no sense of urgency coming out of Washington?
Perhaps the reason can be found in the stunning results of a study conducted by Northeastern University's Center for Labor Studies that broke down the unemployment rate by income. Unemployment for those making $150,000 a year, the study found, was only 3 percent in the last quarter of 2009. The rate for those in the middle income range was 9 percent -- not far off the national average. The rate for those in the bottom 10 percent of income was a staggering 31 percent.
These numbers, according to the Wall Street Journal's Robert Frank, "raise questions about the theory behind what is informally known as 'trickle down' economics, since full employment at the top doesn't seem to be translating into more jobs below.'"
In fact, these numbers do more than raise questions -- they also supply the answers.
Does anyone believe that the sense of urgency coming out of Washington wouldn't be wildly different if it was the unemployment rate in the top ten percent that was 31 percent? If one-third of television news producers, pundits, bankers, and lobbyists were unemployed, would the measures being proposed by the White House and Congress still be this pathetic? Of course not -- the sense of national emergency would be so great you'd practically be hearing air raid sirens howling.
Instead we get baby steps, bipartisanship, and band-aids -- timid moves that, given the seriousness of the crisis, threaten to change the very fabric of our society. For much of our history, America was known for its upward mobility -- and the promise that hard work would be rewarded with your children being able to do better than you. That promise has been called into question over the last three decades, and an extended run of high unemployment could be its death knell.
"These are the kinds of jobless rates that push families already struggling on meager incomes into destitution," wrote Bob Herbert. "And such gruesome gaps in the condition of groups at the top and bottom of the economic ladder are unmistakable signs of impending societal instability. This is dangerous stuff."
So dangerous, in fact, that when it comes to jobs we can't afford a repeat of the health care reform fiasco, in which the president decided to sit out the debate, emerging only to give vague statements of encouragement and cryptic pronouncements about what he actually favored (does anyone, even at this late date, have a clue what that was, by the way?).
Already, the latest jobs bill is barely more alive than its near-comatose health care and financial reform cousins. It was a good sign last week when Harry Reid took the jobs bill awayfrom Senators Max Baucus and Charles Grassley, who, under the increasingly fetid banner of "bipartisanship," were busy larding it up with all sorts of giveaways to big business and K Street. Republican senators responded to the move by taking to their fainting couches, but it was clear that the concessions being made to secure a "bipartisan" bill meant, essentially, a worthless bill.
"It does show," TNR's Jonathan Chait wrote, "just how steep the price of securing bipartisan support actually is -- you're reduced to essentially symbolic legislation."
So going mono-partisan was good. What wasn't good was replacing the bipartisan bill with measures that were simply way too small in scope. The provisions Reid proposes -- a Build America Bonds program for state government infrastructure needs, a small business tax credit, a payroll tax holiday -- are good, just grossly inadequate.
As James Galbraith notes, "we have to turn the corner on the notion that this is just a pump that needs to be primed, an engine that needs to be restarted, something that can be kicked back into functioning form with a little extra federal spending."
So what sorts of ideas are out there that Congress and the president should be considering?
• The most immediate step -- and one of the most effective -- is direct aid to local and state governments. Since August of 2008 over 150,000 state and local jobs have been eliminated, and, according to CNNMoney, states are currently looking at a total budget gap of $180 billion for fiscal 2011. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that state and local deficits could cost the country an entire point off the GDP, which would in turn lead to the loss of another 900,000 jobs next year. This is why the Economic Policy Instituterecommends the federal government spend $150 billion on aid to state and local governments over the next year and a half, an investment that would save up to 1.4 million jobs.
The Reid bill, by the way, contains no state aid (although he hopes to back a state aid measure in the future).
Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich also favors direct aid to state and local governments, as well as a focus on helping troubled homeowners by letting them include their outstanding mortgage in personal bankruptcy, which, as Reich notes, "would give them far more bargaining leverage with mortgage lenders."
• Create public service jobs. "The federal government could provide jobs by... providing jobs," writes Paul Krugman. "It's time for at least a small-scale version of the New Deal's Works Progress Administration... There would be accusations that the government was creating make-work jobs, but the W.P.A. left many solid achievements in its wake. And the key point is that direct public employment can create a lot of jobs at relatively low cost."
In fact, the EPI estimates that one million jobs could be created with an investment of $40 billion a year for three years.
This approach is also favored by Princeton's Alan Blinder. "Direct public-service employment is straightforward," he wrote. "As long as the new government jobs do not compete with the private sector, the net job creation should be one-for-one. So hire people to repair parks, not shopping malls."
• Incentivize Green jobs. To take just one example, as the rest of the economy was shedding jobs, the solar energy industry added nearly 20,000 jobs last year. Rhone Resch, head of the Solar Energy Industries Association, estimates that the solar industry could add up to 45,000 jobs in 2010 if Congress renews various incentive programs that are expiring this year.
• Rebuild the nation's infrastructure. A study by the Alliance for American Manufacturing concluded 2.6 million jobs could be created with $148 billion in infrastructure spending.
One way to finance this rebuilding would be through a National Infrastructure Bank, which has been proposed by Senator Chris Dodd and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro. The idea has been given a boost by the president, who proposed giving it $25 billion over the next five years.
An example of what a real -- and really bold -- infrastructure jobs program can look like was provided by China. The Chinese bullet train, with the world's highest average speed, will beopening its Guangzhou to Wuhan line by 2012. It will go 664 miles in just more than three hours and is one of 42 lines that will be opening in two years. China's national high speed rail program was originally slated to be finished in 2020 but, because of the financial crisis, they moved up the date by eight years and spent $100 billion to do it, in the process giving productive jobs to tens of thousands of workers who were about to be laid off.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., we're hoping to have one 84-mile high speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando done by 2014.
• Economist Dean Baker suggests the promotion of publicly-funded prescription drug trials. "A direct result of government-granted patent monopolies is that prescription drugs are often incredibly expensive," writes Baker. With government-funded trials, "all the results would be fully public and available to all researchers as soon as practical," and "the government would pay much lower prices for the drugs for which it funded the clinical tests."
Will all this be expensive? Yes. But in the long run, not nearly as costly as long-term unemployment and the crumbling of America's middle class. The good news for Obama and congressional Democrats is that a robust jobs bill is not only the right policy, but good politics as well. As Nate Silver writes: "The jobs bill -- specifically, a $100 billion jobs bill that would consist of a combination of tax credits and infrastructure programs -- is favored 72-22 (!) by the public according to [a recent] Quinnipiac poll." So why have the Democrats, as Silver writes, "let it devolve into yet another process story while at the same time limiting their options to a menu of choices all of which seem inadequate to the scope of the program?"
It's unclear. Again and again, the administration has had the opportunity to show that it gets what's happening outside the fully employed sectors of Wall Street and Washington. And again and again, it comes up short.
It's time for something bold. Unfortunately, we've now seen enough of President Obama to know that boldness isn't exactly his forte. Bold rhetoric at times, sure, but not bold action. His natural caution and incremental approach would be well-suited to many times -- but this is not one of them. The jobs crisis is simply too large and the suffering too great. Obama needs to put aside the clich├ęs about changing how Washington works and change the way he works.
The chasm America has fallen into cannot be crossed with bipartisan baby steps. The president needs to grab Congressional Democrats by the hand... and leap. How Obama responds to this crisis will not only define his presidency, but the long-term future of our nation.