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“The Legacy We Could Create For Freddie Gray”: Ensuring A Good Start For The Very Young, A Priority As High As Jobs And Education

A determined young woman is graduating this month from Howard University with dreams of attending law school. Her LinkedIn page attests to a life of both making and seizing opportunities, from serving as a House of Representatives page while in high school, to working at a fashion firm, a law office and the White House.

All of this would have seemed farfetched 10 years ago when 12-year-old Talitha Halley of New Orleans saw Hurricane Katrina wipe out her home and community, spent an awful week in the Superdome, and ended up on a bus to Houston with her mother and older sister.

The high school in their new Houston neighborhood, Sharpstown, was 96 percent minority. More than 8 in 10 students were eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch. It had a gang problem and a dropout problem. Only about a third of freshmen were making it to their senior years — putting Sharpstown in the top ranks of 1,700 “dropout factories” that Johns Hopkins researchers identified in 2007 for a national Associated Press study. Sharpstown went on to star in the 2012 film Dropout Nation on PBS’ Frontline.

But Halley had a loving, encouraging mother and Sharpstown had Communities in Schools, a dropout prevention group that puts people inside schools to link students with whatever they need — “whether it’s food, school supplies, health care, counseling, academic assistance, or a positive role model.” Halley joined a support group it sponsored for teenage Katrina refugees, applied to be a House page, visited Howard and vowed to go there, and inspired many friends and mentors and to help her achieve her dreams. As the first in her family to earn a college degree, The Washington Post reported that she is graduating with only $15,000 in debt on a $200,000 education.

Freddie Gray lived in a Baltimore neighborhood plagued by similar problems, but his trajectory was very different. He fell four grades behind in reading. He dropped out of high school. He was arrested many times, mostly on drug-related charges. And then he died after sustaining a fatal injury while in police custody.

Why wasn’t Gray more like Halley? It’s a haunting question. The easy answer is just that he wasn’t motivated enough, just didn’t try hard enough. Look further, though, and Gray was up against a deck so stacked that it likely would have crushed anyone, even Halley. His mother was an illiterate heroin addict, and he spent his early childhood in houses with peeling lead paint. His lead levels were so alarming as an infant and toddler that his family sued one of its landlords. He and his two sisters began getting monthly “lead checks” as part of a settlement in 2010.

The National Institutes of Health lists a devastating array of symptoms and long-term complications from lead poisoning. They include aggressive behavior, irritability, low appetite and energy, behavior or attention problems, failure at school, reduced IQ and — in young children — loss of previous developmental skills. “The younger the child, the more harmful lead can be,” NIH warns.

Did Gray’s lead settlement make him dependent and rob him of his will to get ahead? Or was he permanently damaged long before that in ways that make it very difficult to succeed? Where was the government when the Gray family’s landlords were letting paint poison their tenants? Where were the home visits that might have picked up on the situation, the services that might have prevented such costly harm to children and to society?

There are many people talking these days about fixing poverty, income inequality, mass incarceration, unjust sentencing, and police practices that lead to tragedy. President Obama said recently that his mission in office and “for the rest of my life” will be to make sure minority youths have the chance to achieve their dreams. Republican presidential candidates are also in the mix; almost all hewing to the line that government “help” hurts the poor.

The GOP argument ignores history. Government policies, from slavery to Jim Crow, from poll taxes to the mortgage redlining, that kept black people out of good neighborhoods with good schools pretty much put us where we are today. It’s appropriate that the government do all it can to make things right, for as long as it takes.

Furthermore, and this goes for politicians across the board, it’s fine and necessary to help teenagers, prisoners, preschoolers, the working poor, anyone who needs it — but our energy and resources really ought to be concentrated far more than they are on poor children from birth to age 3. They are at increased risk of irreparable damage to their brains, bodies, mental health, and overall potential. Ensuring a good start for the very young should be a priority as high as jobs and education for both parties. As Abigail Adams would say, remember the babies. And remember Freddie Gray.

 

By: Jill Lawrence, The National Memo, May 8, 2015

May 10, 2015 Posted by | Freddie Gray, Poverty | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Minimum Wage Is A Self-Made GOP Problem”: Conservatives Believe Losing Now Means Losing Forever

Too bad George W. Bush is persona non grata among congressional Republicans. If he were less unpopular, they might find in the waning years of his presidency an example of what to do about a vexing issue facing them in 2016, an issue Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called that “gosh darn” minimum wage.

In their bid to take over the Congress in 2006, the Democrats vowed to raise a federal minimum wage that had remained unchanged since the second term of the Clinton administration. After sweeping midterm victories in both chambers, congressional Democrats put the issue on their agenda, calling for an incremental increase from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 by 2009.

That wasn’t enough for Barack Obama, who vowed to raise the minimum wage to $9.50 by 2011 if elected president. His promise, however, came before the Great Recession cast a pall over many of his campaign promises. The minimum wage has remained $7.25 since he took office. (It is now higher in some cities and states; New York State recently raised it to $15 an hour in the New York City metropolitan area and $12.50 upstate.)

So the push to raise the minimum wage isn’t new. That’s a bit counterintuitive given the attention being paid to economic inequality, an issue that arose in the aftermath of the 2007 financial collapse. Even Republican contenders for the White House are obliged at least to pay lip service to the issue. And to be sure, a stagnant minimum wage is the bedrock of economic inequality. But the thread of the debate began during the second Bush administration, which was hostile or indifferent to the law, and allowed the purchasing power of the base wage to erode while the cost of living continued to climb or, indeed, soar. (To briefly illustrate, using 2013 dollars: if the minimum wage were $7.25 in New York City, the actual value would be about $4 an hour.)

What did President Bush do that could serve as a model for today’s congressional Republicans? First, two observations. One, Bush’s presidency was nearing historic levels of unpopularity by 2007. Two, voters tend to punish the party in power in hard times. The 2008 election was going to be rough for any GOP candidate.

But also keep in mind the nature of the business wing of the GOP. It is against wage mandates, because wages cut into profits. But the faction is also politically canny. It was willing to concede to demands for a higher minimum wage, if conceding weakened Democrats in 2008. Put another way: if Republicans had continued to resist raising the wage, then the wage issue may have become more potent for Barack Obama. So the business wing of the Republican Party — including 82 members of the House, all but three senators, and the president — held its nose and supported a wage hike.

The conservative wing of the GOP, on the other hand, is the opposite of canny. It does not see the wisdom of conceding on the minimum wage, even as the minimum wage has taken on more significance than it had a decade ago. Conservatives believe losing now means losing forever, and losing is inconceivable given the righteousness of their cause. Therefore, the more they resist raising the minimum wage, the more potent it will be for the Democratic Party’s nominee. As Harry Reid told The Hill yesterday: “If Republicans don’t do something about it, it’s a major issue.”

Reid was commenting on the most recent effort to exploit conservative intransigence. In the past, the Democrats called for $10.10 an hour. Yesterday, Senator Patty Murray introduced a bill raising the wage to $12 by 2020. The Raise the Wage Act, she said, would affect 38 million workers. Moreover, she was clearly relishing the moment. “I want to hear what the Republican presidential candidates have to say about this,” she said.

And they responded in predictable fashion.

Ted Cruz said the bill would be a “job-killing” disaster. Marco Rubio warned that workers would be replaced by robots. Scott Walker questioned the validity of wage mandates in general. Rand Paul said a base wage is good for young people but nobody else. And Jeb Bush, who most represents the interests of the business wing of the Republican Party, punted to the “private sector.”

You’ve got to wonder whom they think they are speaking for. According to a February poll by the Associated Press, 6 in 10 favor raising the minimum wage, including 40 percent of Republicans. In 2013, Gallup found more than 71 percent in favor, including half of Republicans. Last year, a Washington Post/ABC News survey found that 50 percent of respondents are more likely to vote for candidates who favor raising the minimum wage.

Clearly, the Republican presidential field isn’t speaking for the majority, or even for members of their party who see the good in increasing the wage. Jeb Bush is speaking for a business faction that fears higher wages eating into profits, while the rest is speaking for conservatives who believe compromise equals surrender.

The smart thing would be to give in now to prevent the minimum wage from haunting the Republican candidate later. But don’t hold your breath. On the occasion last summer when Mitch McConnell complained about the Democrats proposing to raise that “gosh darn” minimum wage (once again!), he added one more comment suggesting there’s no returning to the political pragmatism the George W. Bush administration exhibited in 2007.

“These people believe in all the wrong things,” he said.

 

By: John Stoehr, Managing Editor of The Washington Spectator; The National Memo, May 8, 2015

May 9, 2015 Posted by | Conservatives, Minimum Wage, Mitch Mc Connell | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Keeping Their Eyes On The Prize”: Democrats’ No. 1 Job; Remind Voters That American Wages Have Flatlined

For the moment, the Democrats have resumed their time-honored posture of arguing about trade policy. It’s an important issue, and one on which I’m not sure where I come down. But as they prepare to rip each other’s flesh, they might bear in mind it isn’t the issue. The issue, as I wrote two weeks ago in urging Hillary Clinton to go big, is wage stagnation. I offer this up as a timely public-service reminder: Remember, folks, what you agree on.

As I noted in the go big column, wages have been in essence flat for earners—up 6 percent (adjusted for inflation)—in the middle of the income scale since 1979. For the top 1 percent, compensation has risen about 140 percent since the fateful year. This needs to be the issue of this campaign. If American voters don’t know these 6 percent and 140 percent figures November 8 next year, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats will have done something very wrong.

Economists choose 1979 as the cutoff year because, looking back over the numbers, that’s when the flattening started. It’s also about when compensation at the top started soaring (a little later, actually). Until the early to mid-1980s, Wall Streeters and corporate lawyers and actors and university presidents and star athletes made more than the rest of us, but they didn’t make gobs more.

For example, the average baseball salary doubled, up to around $370,000, from 1981 to 1985. The average wage in that same time frame went from $13,773 in 1981 to $16,822 in 1985, an 18 percent increase. Not bad, better than average; but not double by a long shot. I’m not saying the juxtaposition of these numbers proves anything more than it proves. But it is certainly representative of what was happening to American wages then and has been happening since.

Another way of looking at it: The average ballplayer went from making about 12 times the average American to 22 times. Today, incidentally, it’s 108 times, $4.25 million to around $39,000.

So what we’re gonna do right here is go back, way back, as an old song had it, to the year of Apocalypse Now and Get the Knack and those hideous Pittsburgh Pirates uniforms  that so offended my aesthetic sensibilities that I had no choice but to cheer against the team I’d grown up worshipping. Let’s ask: What if the wage structure in the United States today were the same as it was in 1979?

Larry Summers asked the question in the Financial Times back in January. The bottom 80 percent of earners, he wrote, would have $11,000 more per family, and the top 1 percent would have $750,000 less. In the wake of Summers’s column, the folks at NPR’s Planet Money took it one step further and calculated the increased (or decreased) income for households at several points along the wage structure. It’ll pop your little eyes.

The poorest wage-earners, at $12,000, would be making $3,282 more. That’s a 27 percent increase. Those at $30,000 would be making $6,928 more (23 percent). Those at $52,000 would be getting $8,752 more (16.8 percent). For those at $84,000, the increase drops off, to $5,834 more (7 percent). But it kicks back up for those at $122,000, to $17,311 (14.2 percent). And finally, those in the top 1 percent, at $1.41 million, would see a decrease in earnings of $824,844, or a whopping 58 percent.

Now before we go any further—no, no one today is talking about anything as confiscatory as wiping out 58 percent of the top 1 percent’s earnings. That isn’t how it’s going to work anymore, with top marginal tax rates of 76 percent (which does not mean that the government took three-quarters of someone’s money; go look up the concept of “marginal” if you don’t get this).

But the wage structure is a function of a whole host of other policies and practices that have nothing to do with marginal tax rates. It has to do, yes, with the minimum wage. It was $2.90 in 1979. Adjusted for inflation, that would be $9.38 today instead of the actual $7.25, which is a 23 percent decline for those workers, and minimum wage is generally thought to have knock-on effects at least a third of the way up the wage chain. It has a lot to do with corporate culture: In 1979, CEOs at the top few hundred corporations made about 28 times the average worker’s salary; now they make more than 200 times. There were 15.1 million private-sector union workers  in the United States in 1979; last year, there were 7.35 million. And in 1979, Washington oversaw a lot more in public investment than it does today, and those dollars by and large went into real things, from bridges to scientific research, instead of swaps and derivatives.

Now, 1979 was a bad year in some important ways—inflation, hostage crisis—so I’m not saying I think it would be the world’s greatest idea for the Democrats to campaign on bringing back 1979. It’s not about the year per se. That just happens to be the year the thing started happening. And the thing is flat wages for most people who work for a living.

The trade fight has to be played out, and it seems that the unions and the Warren wing are probably going to lose, because the president will get enough votes from Republicans and moderate Democrats. And of course it’ll be interesting to see how Clinton plays it. Whichever position she takes, we can be sure she’ll do it cautiously.

So dust will be kicked up over that. It has to be. The differences are real. But comparatively, the differences are small. Democrats must keep their eyes on the prize. “Who cares more about increasing the wages of working Americans?” is a debate question the Republicans can never win. The Democrats have to make sure the election is about that question.

 

By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, April 24, 2015

April 29, 2015 Posted by | Democrats, Minimum Wage, Wage Stagnation | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Fracturing Democracies”: The Dominant Tendency Now Is toward ‘Disaggregation’

The world’s democracies, perhaps especially our own, face a peculiar set of contradictions that are undermining faith in public endeavor and unraveling old loyalties.

There is a decline of trust in traditional political parties but also a rise in partisanship. A broad desire for governments to reduce the levels of economic insecurity and expand opportunity is constrained by a loss of confidence in the capacity of government to succeed. Intense demands for change are accompanied by fears that much of the change that is occurring will make life worse for individuals and families.

These crosscurrents are undercutting political leaders and decimating political parties with long histories. In Europe, movements on the far right and left (along with new regional parties) gain traction with disaffected citizens. Concerns about immigration reflect uneasiness among some over the social and cultural tremors in their nations. At the same time, discontent about the economic decline that afflicts regions not sharing in the global economy’s bounty calls forth protest against the privileged and the well-connected. In both cases, anger is the dominant emotion.

The convergence of these forces is especially powerful in Britain, which holds a national election on May 7 and where neither of the long-dominant Conservative and Labour Parties is likely to win a parliamentary majority. In 1951, the two parties together secured 96.8 percent of all the votes cast. This year, they are struggling to reach a combined 70 percent.

In Scotland, long a Labour stronghold, the pro-independence Scottish National Party could take as many as 50 of the region’s 59 seats, which would block British Labour leader Ed Miliband from securing a majority. But Miliband, who has run a better campaign than his foes expected, could still end up in power, partly because Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives are hemorrhaging votes to the UK Independence Party, which is critical of both immigration and the European Union.

In Greece, the traditional social democratic Pasok party was nearly destroyed after the country’s economic collapse. The left-wing Syriza party took power this year because of deep frustration with economic austerity and anger over the terms being set by the European Union for a financial rescue. Far-right parties have gained ground in France and even in usually moderate Scandinavia.

In the United States, partisan splits have rarely been so deep and acrimony across party lines so intense. But these feelings don’t come from wildly positive views about the parties voters embrace. In a widely discussed paper released earlier this month, Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster, Emory University political scientists, noted that “one of the most important trends in American politics over the past several decades has been the rise of negative partisanship in the electorate.”

It occurs, they write, when “supporters of each party perceive supporters of the opposing party as very different from themselves in terms of their social characteristics and fundamental values.” Yes, our current form of partisanship leads us to dislike not only the other side’s politicians but even each other.

And the frustrations voters feel provide each camp with ideological rocks to throw at their adversaries. In a PRRI/Brookings survey I was involved with in 2013, two findings locked horns: 63 percent of Americans said government should be doing more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, but 59 percent also believed government had grown bigger because it had become involved in things people should do for themselves. We want government to do more about injustice, but we also seem to want it smaller.

Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, argues in the current issue of The American Prospect that this tension is partly explained by a widespread view that “special interests” have too much of a hold on government. He argues that voters “are ready for government to help — if the stables are cleaned.”

This makes good sense, but in the United States, as elsewhere, little of what’s happening in politics is reweaving frayed social bonds. The title of Princeton University historian Daniel T. Rodgers’ revelatory 2011 book, Age of Fracture, captured what’s happening to us. In our era, he wrote, “Identities become fluid and elective,” and if the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were a time of political and social “consolidation,” the dominant tendency now is toward “disaggregation.”

This is a big problem for self-government, since aggregating sustainable majorities is the first task of politicians in democratic countries. They are not doing a very good job, and the unfolding 2016 campaign doesn’t inspire much confidence that they’ll do better.

 

By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, April 26, 2015

April 28, 2015 Posted by | Democracy, Partisanship, Politics | , , , , , | 1 Comment

“What Makes Us Exceptional”: Our Willingness To Confront Squarely Our Imperfections And To Learn From Our Mistakes

This week President Obama did something unprecedented…he took responsibility for a terrible mistake that took the lives of two good men.

Here’s a part of what he said:

But one of the things that sets America apart from many other nations, one of the things that makes us exceptional is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.

In some ways, that echoes what he said at the 50th Anniversary Celebration in Selma.

What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?

Of course, the events he was commemorating at that time didn’t happen on his watch. So the personal burden wasn’t as heavy.

But I was reminded of another time when President Obama’s administration made a mistake and he stepped right up to take responsibility. It was when the rollout of healthcare.gov was such a disaster. Here’s what he said then:

…there are going to be ups and downs during the course of my presidency. And I think I said early on when I was running – I am not a perfect man, and I will not be a perfect President, but I’ll wake up every single day working as hard as I can on behalf of Americans out there from every walk of life who are working hard, meeting their responsibilities, but sometimes are struggling because the way the system works isn’t giving them a fair shot.

And that pledge I haven’t broken. That commitment, that promise, continues to be – continues to hold – the promise that I wouldn’t be perfect, number one, but also the promise that as long as I’ve got the honor of having this office, I’m just going to work as hard as I can to make things better for folks…

I make no apologies for us taking this on – because somebody sooner or later had to do it. I do make apologies for not having executed better over the last several months.

At the time, I remember thinking that was one of the most courageous things I’d ever seen a president do. And now, under even more somber circumstances, he’s done it again.

Some people think that our exceptionalism as a country comes from being better than everyone else and focusing only on the positive. Admitting mistakes certainly makes us vulnerable. But pretending to be perfect is nothing but a lie. And it robs us of both the ability to learn from our mistakes and to embrace the kind of humility that opens the door to empathy for others.

President Obama has been willing to put his ego aside, admit when he’s been wrong, and make a determined effort to learn from those mistakes. Those are the kinds of lessons that we – as individuals – need to learn. But they also apply to how we go about “perfecting our union.”

 

By: Nancy LeTourneau, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, April 25, 2015

April 26, 2015 Posted by | American Exceptionalism, Patriotism, President Obama | , , , , | 2 Comments

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