Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Man Of Bad Ideas Has Another One

It may be Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Or it may be as Karoli of Crooks and Liars puts it, that "Robert Reich would know better than to call this a "serious proposal if it were actually Reich on that program. No, this was his evil twin Skippy..."

Robert Reich says he was "frankly very impressed" and Paul Ryan's proposal "deserves a careful look by Democrats"  It may be an evil twin, because otherwise we have to conclude it's the same Robert Reich who understands

simply having a job is no bulwark against poverty. In fact, across America the ranks of the working poor have been growing. Around one-fourth of all American workers are now in jobs paying below what a full-time, full-year worker needs in order to live above the federally defined poverty line for a family of four.

The Ryan plan would consolidate 11 federal anti-poverty programs into one program coordinated on a state-by-state basis. It also would expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, in part by eliminating other programs of the social safety net,such as The Social Service Block Grant, the Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program, the Economic Development Administration, and the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program. 
More controversially than robbing Peter to pay Paul, each recipient of aid would sign a contract and 

each state will approve a list of certified providers that are held accountable for providing quality service and achieving results (such as moving people to work, out of poverty, and off of assistance).

Next, a person will select a provider, and the provider will conduct a comprehensive assessment of that person’s needs, abilities, and circumstances. 

Then, the two of them will develop a customized plan to address the recipient’s needs. The plan could take the form of a contract—with sanctions for failing and bonuses for exceeding expectations. The plan would offer financial assistance to address immediate needs, like food, clothing, child care, and housing. But it would also work on setting goals, learning skills, and developing a broader support system.

Slate's Jamelle Bouie, however recognizes 

the idea that life skills are necessary to climb out of poverty—that the poor are plagued by low income and bad habits—doesn’t jibe with the facts on the ground.

Mandatory life coaching makes sense if most poverty is persistent and generational. Even with federal assistance, adults with little-to-no market income—and little experience in the workforce—are at a long-term disadvantage and likely to pass those barriers on to their children. But poverty in America is fluid; depending on the season, the unstable nature of market work may force a period of personal retrenchment.

It's not surprising that the scheme hatched by the right-wing chairperson of the House Budget Committee is paternalistic, nor that it entails a major expansion of government bureaucracy, necessitated by the notions of a comprehensive assessment, customized plan, setting goals and "developing a broader social system."  But Ryan may be thinking long-term, strategizing to effect a radical reduction in assistance to the nation's increasingly large block of poor, and working-class, people. Max Sawicky explains

the common theme throughout the report is to convert Federal programs into block grants. A block grant is a fixed pot of money provided to a state or local government for broadly-defined purposes. Ryan’s report is at pains to assert that the conversion would not entail spending cuts. This could not be further from the truth.

The story goes back to the days of Richard Nixon. I told it here. I was not the first to figure out the deal. The short version is that a program or programs converted to a block grant is being set up to wither away. Block grants are designed through formulas to grow slowly or not at all, despite the likelihood that whatever the included programs were aimed at typically costs more to deal with every year. There are also two malignant political dynamics at work. One is that Congress doesn’t like to spend money without a say in what happens to the money. Block grants transfer control to state governments. They have the fun of spending the money, Congress has the fun of raising the taxes to pay for it. The other is that the more vague — “flexible” — the purposes of the grant, the less focused is its political support.

State officials are always happy to play this game because the money is front-loaded. In the initial years the grant is close to what they were getting before, and by the time the grant shrinks, they will be out of office anyway.

The transfer of program responsibility from the Federal government to the states is known as devolution. It is the standard way of attacking domestic spending for social purposes, going back to Richard Nixon’s dismantling of the original, more interesting War on Poverty launched by Lyndon Johnson.

Paul Ryan still believes most people are struggling because of their own faults, possibly their culture.  But this is a country whose largest employer (Wal-Mart) raked in $17 billion in profits two years ago while paying its typical worker, a sales associate, an average of $8.81 an hour, or approximately $18,300 per year. Or as Digby observes

Ryan wants to "help" the poor the same way conservative have always wanted to help them --- by giving them the "tough love" of making their lives even worse than they already are. If they want "help" they can go to a church and pray to their God and maybe they'll get a sandwich. 

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Saturday, July 26, 2014

It Takes A Special Writer To Defend The Taliban

Andrea Grimes has a valid thought: "we do not have, and have never had, a nuanced, thoughtful national conversation about Islam."  Good thing that, because it is among her few good ideas in 31 paragraphs. With greater emphasis she argues "there is indeed a powerful, well-funded and rigidly patriarchal religious movement behind America's most misogynist laws, and it isn't any iteration of Islam. It's Christianity."

How insightful to reject stereotyping of Islam while maintaining that "Christianity" is "a powerful, well-funded and rigidly patriarchal religious movement behind America's most misogynist laws."  That will surprise members of, for example, the United Church of Christ (evidently misogynist videos, below):

Grimes writes

I saw it on posters last summer at the Texas capitol, during protests against the state’s omnibus anti-abortion law: “TEXAS TALIBAN.” I’ve heard pundits and preachers on cable news, decrying the “American Taliban” that wants to take away birth control and abortion access.

These phrases aren’t clever, and they aren’t insightful. They’re racist, and they’re Islamophobic, and people—especially white people—who work in social justice movements and who do advocacy for women’s rights need to stop using them yesterday.

Especially white people? Why especially white people? Are non-white people especially entitled to be "racist" and "Islamophobic?"

They're not, though the slogans "Texas Taliban" or "American Taliban" clearly are not racist, anyway.  "An Islamic fundamentalist political movement in Afghanistan adhering to Wahhabist ideology," as Wikipedia coldly and objectively describes it, the Taliban do not constitute a "race" and criticism of them does not constitute "racism."

It's understandable, however, that Grimes would be confused about the intersection of race, nationality, and religion.  She remarks "There have been a grand total of two Muslim Americans elected to the United States Congress."  Repeating her error, she would refer to "Muslim Americans, and people who are perceived to be Muslim Americans,"

This should come as a surprise to Representative Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota), who is affiliated with the Muslim religion and who, as a black man, is African-American.  American Muslim, surely; Muslim-American? Not any more than most of you reading this (at least inside the USA) are "Protestant-American" or "Catholic-American."  If throwing around terms like "racist,"  "homophobic," and "misogynistic,"one ought to guard against misidentification.

Responsibility must be laid at the feet of deserving individuals.  Instead, Grimes contends "Maybe you’re not the kind of American who’s going to plant a pipe bomb at a mosque, but when you try and foment fear by hollering “AMERICAN TALIBAN!” at the top of your lungs, you give those who might an awful lot of culturally sanctioned leeway to try."

There is no "maybe" about it; it's safe to say that no one reading this, nor any of Grimes' neighbors, will plant a pipe bomb at a mosque. It's nearly equally true that if you holler "American Taliban" (all in caps- nice touch, Andrea) "at the top of your lungs" you will not incite a bomb thrower. My guess is that an accusation of being Talibani will not prompt an individual to become a domestic terrorist, and only twisted reasoning would lead someone to conclude that the charge, hurled as an insult, sanctions the behavior.

Unable to conceal her hostility toward Christianity (not fundamentalist or evangelical Christianity, but Christianity), Grimes remarks "Never mind the fact that white, male Americans are doing just fine at oppressing women with bibles at their right hand."  She appears to be unfamiliar with the transcript the Hobby Lobby decision.

The Justices employed 15 times the word "faith" and 103 times the word "religion," both of which would include fundamentalist Islam.  They mentioned "Bible(s)" only twice and "Scripture(s)" not at all. They did not falsely claim Biblical  truth as their motivation,  rather claiming their ruling was based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  Whatever their actual motivation, they did not make with "bibles at their right hand." the decision, which had little or nothing to do with the Old or New Testaments.

The parallel between the religious right and the Taliban, however tenuous, does lie in religious extremism and the willingness to require government action and civil behavior to submit to a religious test.. Grimes will not acknowledge that the culture of the Taliban, who provided sactuary for al Qaeda leading up to the attacks of 9/11/01,  is singularly antithetical to Western cultural tradition. Wikipedia explains

Afghan women were forced to wear the burqa at all times in public, because, according to one Taliban spokesman, "the face of a woman is a source of corruption" for men not related to them. In a systematic segregation sometimes referred to as gender apartheid, women were not allowed to work, they were not allowed to be educated after the age of eight, and until then were permitted only to study the Qur'an.

Women seeking an education were forced to attend underground schools, where they and their teachers risked execution if caught. They were not allowed to be treated by male doctors unless accompanied by a male chaperone, which led to illnesses remaining untreated. They faced public flogging and execution for violations of the Taliban's laws. The Taliban allowed and in some cases encouraged marriage for girls under the age of 16. Amnesty International reported that 80% of Afghan marriages were considered to be arranged by force.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously wrote "Let me tell you about the rich. They are different from you and me."  The Taliban are different from you and me. If you are Muslim, the Taliban still are probably different from you and me. And when protesters excoriate the "American Taliban," they are acknowledging the group is beyond the pale, outside of the mainstream of Western religious thought, whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim.

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Friday, July 25, 2014

He Is, After All, Only The President

Can we stop making excuses for Barack Obama?  Normally sane bloggers Ed Kilgore and Kevin Drumtake a whack at Thomas Frank for his recent Salon piece entitled "Right-wing obstruction cold have been fought: An ineffective and gutless presidency's legacy is failure."

Historian and author Frank wrote

The Obama team, as the president once announced to a delegation of investment bankers, was “the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” and in retrospect these words seem not only to have been a correct assessment of the situation at the moment but a credo for his entire term in office. For my money, they should be carved in stone over the entrance to his monument: Barack Obama as the one-man rescue squad for an economic order that had aroused the fury of the world. Better: Obama as the awesomely talented doctor who kept the corpse of a dead philosophy lumbering along despite it all.

Frank speculates about the future Obama presidential library and notes

... all presidential museums are exercises in getting their subject off the hook, and for Obama loyalists looking back at his years in office, the need for blame evasion will be acute. Why, the visitors to his library will wonder, did the president do so little about rising inequality, the subject on which he gave so many rousing speeches? Why did he do nothing, or next to nothing, about the crazy high price of a college education, the Great Good Thing that he has said, time and again, determines our personal as well as national success? Why didn’t he propose a proper healthcare program instead of the confusing jumble we got? Why not a proper stimulus package? Why didn’t he break up the banks? Or the agribusiness giants, for that matter?
Well, duh, his museum will answer: he couldn’t do any of those things because of the crazy right-wingers running wild in the land. He couldn’t reason with them—their brains don’t work like ours! He couldn’t defeat them at the polls—they’d gerrymandered so many states that they couldn’t be dislodged! What can a high-minded man of principle do when confronted with such a vast span of bigotry and close-mindedness? The answer toward which the Obama museum will steer the visitor is: Nothing.

In point of fact, there were plenty of things Obama’s Democrats could have done that might have put the right out of business once and for all—for example, by responding more aggressively to the Great Recession or by pounding relentlessly on the theme of middle-class economic distress. Acknowledging this possibility, however, has always been difficult for consensus-minded Democrats, and I suspect that in the official recounting of the Obama era, this troublesome possibility will disappear entirely. Instead, the terrifying Right-Wing Other will be cast in bronze at twice life-size, and made the excuse for the Administration’s every last failure of nerve, imagination and foresight. Demonizing the right will also allow the Obama legacy team to present his two electoral victories as ends in themselves, since they kept the White House out of the monster’s grasp—heroic triumphs that were truly worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize. (Which will be dusted off and prominently displayed.)

Kilgore responded

Underlying Frank’s attacks on Obama is an implicit conspiracy theory nearly as lurid as the Kenyan Muslim Marxist Alinskyite fantasies of the right: that Obama was deployed as a judas goat by the threatened Neoliberal Order to preempt and then prevent the righteous beatdown capitalism had earned for itself by 2008, when “every thinking person could see that the reigning ideology had failed.” Keeping to the appointed script, the phony agent of change then propped up the evil system that was teetering on the edge of catastrophe and subsequently blamed his betrayal of The People on the crazy people of the Right.

Soon after ridiculing Frank's notion that Obama's defenders have "blamed his betrayal of The People on the crazy people of the Right," Kilgore goes on to blame the President's troubles on those mean and nasty Republicans in the Senate:

There is this institution called the U.S. Senate. Even after two big Democratic cycles in 2006 and 2008, Republicans held 40 seats, enough given absolute unity and a single Democratic defection to thwart anything the majority party attempted, under rules ripe for abuse that neither Barack Obama nor Harry Reid invented or imagined. Just a year after Obama took office, Republicans won a special Senate election and obtained the power to block absolutely any Democratic measure.

Drum argues

Back in 2009, was Obama really the only thing that stood between bankers and the howling mob? Don't be silly. Americans were barely even upset, let alone ready for revolution. Those pathetic demonstrations outside the headquarters of AIG were about a hundredth the size that even a half-ass political organization can muster for a routine anti-abortion rally. After a few days the AIG protestors got bored and went home without so much as throwing a few bottles at cops. Even the Greeks managed that much.

Why were Americans so obviously not enraged? Because -- duh -- the hated neoliberal system worked. We didn't have a second Great Depression. The Fed intervened, the banking system was saved, and a stimulus bill was passed. Did bankers get treated too well? Oh yes indeed. Was the stimulus too small? You bet. Nevertheless, was America saved from an epic collapse? It sure was. Instead of a massive meltdown, we got a really bad recession and a weak recovery, and even that was cushioned by a safety net that, although inadequate, was more than enough to keep the pitchforks off the streets...

All of us who do what Thomas Frank does -- what I do -- have failed. Our goal was to persuade the public to move in a liberal direction, and that didn't happen. In the end, we didn't persuade much of anyone. It's natural to want to avoid facing that humiliating truth, and equally natural to look for someone else to blame instead. That's human nature. So fine. Blame Obama if it makes you feel better. That's what we elect presidents for: to take the blame.

But he only deserves his share. The rest of us, who were unable to take advantage of an epic financial collapse to get the public firmly in favor of pitchforks and universal health care, deserve most of it. The mirror doesn't lie.

Sorry, Kevin: Frank, as well as others, doesn't blame Obama because it makes them feel better. It is other progressive (and some moderate) folks, falling head over heels for a cautious, centrist Senator in 2007-2008, who were motivated in part by a need to feel really, really good.

Drum's faux humility, in which he claims "the rest of us, who were unable to take advantage of an epic financial collapse to get the public firmly in favor of pitchforks and universal health care, deserve most of" the blame," has the feel of an Andy Reid mantra. As the Philadelphia Eagles continued to lose, their head coach would insincerely repeat "I have to do a better job," knowing that would cut off any debate about either his coaching strategy or the players he chose not to bench.  Clever tactic, that.

Drum labels "silly" the idea that "Obama (was) really the only thing that stood between bankers and the howling mob."  There was no "howling mob," admittedly.  But the American people were expected to elect either major Democrat because, recognizing "the reigning ideology had failed," they were primed for significant, fundamental change of the progressive/liberal variety.

Moreover, it was Barack Obama himself who remarked (video, below) "we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship" brought the nation by President Reagan who "changed the trajectory of America" because "he put us on a fundamentally different path."

And who (and individuals such as Kilgore and Drum with convenient memories) can forget the candidate (video, below) declaring ("with profound humility") that his election would mark the time "the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal"?

Matt Stoller of the now-defunct Open Left observed (as did few others) at the time

Obama admires Reagan because he agrees with Reagan's basic frame that the 1960s and 1970s were full of 'excesses' and that government had grown large and unaccountable...

Those excesses, of course, were feminism, the consumer rights movement, the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, and the antiwar movement.  The libertarian anti-government ideology of an unaccountable large liberal government was designed by ideological conservatives to take advantage of the backlash against these 'excesses'.

Stoller's voice was one of only a few, though, because as Obama himself once wrote, “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views." That is no excuse, however, to deny facts which smakck us in the face.  Ed Kilgore and Kevin Drum don't understand but at least Thomas Frank, as is his wont, does.

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