With a lush spring came cruel days. The Philadelphia train wreck happened only a hundred miles up the tracks from the Baltimore riots. Is the wind of history, the zeitgeist, on the job as we face the 2016 presidential race?
If so, it’s worth noting that Jeb Bush, the Republican frontrunner, spent days defending older brother George W. Bush, the former president, and the long war he started in Iraq. The younger brother was a one-man off-key Greek chorus.
In defending the decision to go to war based on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction — a claim proved false — the former Florida governor kept saying, “my brother.” Like we the folks are all in with the Bush family? It’s not as if we enjoy fond memories of a presidency defined by 9/11.
To return to the Baltimore and Philadelphia scenes, equidistant from the Mason-Dixon line. Those shocking sights, from April to May, told us that business as usual is taking a tragic toll. The Northeast infrastructure is old, getting older. So are Baltimore’s sad-sack slums, visible from a moving Amtrak window as a train zips up to New York. Lives are on the line. Stressed rails reach a breaking point. And if we let things languish in policing and income inequality, heat will rise on the streets. Plain as that.
But Jeb Bush, the leading Republican candidate (all but declared) had nothing nice to say, no sympathy note to send from his alternate universe. He astonished even friendly media at Fox News and conservative pundits by a doomed defense of “my brother” and his administration’s aggression in starting the Iraq War — still playing out. But as we know from previous Bush family dramas, loyalty to the tribe comes first. Nearly all Jeb Bush’s foreign policy advisors were on his brother’s A list, too.
After several stumbles on whether he would have invaded Iraq as president in 2003, Jeb Bush finally conceded that would be a bad idea. Yet he’s echoed his brother’s bluster and blunder by speaking to the issue with the veneer of a sneer. Why “re-litigate” the past? Many were puzzled at how little thought Jeb Bush gave to the biggest question facing his quest — and bedeviling his brother’s legacy. (If his brother started it, hey, how bad could it be?)
By nature, the busy Bushes don’t spend a lot of time lost in thought or looking back: “No regrets” could be the family coat of arms. Now we know Jeb Bush is no exception. Contrary to claims he’s his own man, he often invokes his last name, stating his brother is his “closest advisor.” Oh brother.
When war goes wrong, it’s in the distance. Here at home, something strange went awry seven miles north of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. A Northeast Regional train came around a bend, speeding at over 100 mph. The derailment devastated and bewildered swaths of the East Coast and beyond. Philly is a handsome city — with the Victorian zoo, the river boathouses, the Museum of Art. The city responded with great compassion and care to the injured and the dead that night. Brotherly love.
Eight beating hearts on that train were gone in a split second, torn from their plans, dreams, loved ones. All eight bodies were found in the wreckage. One victim, Rachel Jacobs, and I are alumnae of Swarthmore College in Philadelphia. She was 39. Somehow she seemed a long-lost friend.
Everyone knows safety improvements and infrastructure investment are overdue (except Congress.) Those old railway bridges over the bountiful, wide Susquehanna River? Sure, it’s easy on the eyes, crossing over the river. The most peaceful way to travel is now freighted with anxiety.
Here’s the thing this spring asks, starkly. Did our country get derailed at a reckless speed? Was Iraq akin to the curve in North Philadelphia?
The next president should address buttressing transportation, income inequality and beleaguered cities with fresh imagination and ideas. Whether a President Jeb Bush could do all that and regain our moral stature in the world community is a bridge too far. He’s failed the test of character.
The younger Bush is not the one to lead us out of our predicament, safe toward home.
By: Jamie Stiehm, The National Memo, May 22, 2015
Earlier this week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, along with a gaggle of bored reporters and some boldfaced names in the progressive movement, unveiled a “Progressive Agenda to Combat Income Inequality.” Much like the media event that accompanied its unveiling, the agenda is supposed to be understood as a kind of 21st-century, liberal version of the storied “Contract with America,” the PR stunt that, as legend (erroneously) has it, rocketed Newt Gingrich and the Republican Party to power after the 1994 midterm elections. As my colleague Joan Walsh reported on Thursday, this backward-looking attempt to lay out a forward-looking platform for the Democratic Party did not go entirely according to plan.
Which is not to say it was a failure. In fact, for a photo-op held during a non-election year in May and headlined by a relatively unknown local politician, the unveiling of the agenda probably got more attention than it deserved. Even so, as Joan relayed from the scene, there was some tension at the event — and not only because President Obama’s hard sell of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is driving some liberals to distraction while making others defensive. Sure, the agenda does call on lawmakers to “[o]ppose trade deals that hand more power to corporations at the expense of American jobs, workers’ rights, and the environment,” which is basically how the TPP is described by its foes. But that discord was for the most part kept under the surface.
The real reason de Blasio’s stab at playing the role of Progressive Moses was a bit awkward (despite going much better for him than it did for Ed Miliband) is knottier and harder to ignore. And it didn’t only trip up Hizzoner, but also marred a same-day Roosevelt Institute event on “rewriting the rules” of the economy, which was keynoted by no less a figure than Sen. Elizabeth Warren. It’s an issue that’s long dogged the American left, and the United States more generally, and it’s one that will not go away, no matter how fervently everyone may wish. It is, of course, the issue of race; and as these D.C. left-wing confabs showed, it will dash any hope of a liberal future unless the “professional left” gets deathly serious about it — and quick.
If you haven’t read Joan’s piece (which you really should), here’s a quick summary of how race wound up exposing the fault lines of the left at two events that were supposed to be about unity of purpose. Despite American politics becoming increasingly concentrated over the past two years on issues of mass incarceration and police brutality — which both have much to do with the legacy of white supremacy and the politics of race — neither de Blasio’s agenda nor the Roosevelt Institute’s report spend much time on reforming criminal justice. To their credit, folks from both camps have agreed that this was a mistake and have promised to redress it in the future. Still, it was quite an oversight — and a shame, too, because it justifiably distracted from an agenda and a report that were both chock-full of good ideas.
I wasn’t in the room when de Blasio’s agenda or the Roosevelt Institute’s report were created, but I feel quite confident in saying that the mistake here was not a result of prejudice or thoughtlessness or even conscious timidity. I suspect instead that ingrained habits and knee-jerk reflexes — born from coming of age, at least politically, in the Reagan era — are more likely to blame. Because while the radical left has been talking about and organizing around racial injustices for decades, mainstream American liberalism, the kind of liberalism that is comfortably within the Democratic Party mainstream, is much less familiar with explicitly integrating race into its broader vision.
Let me try to put some meat on those bones with a concrete example also taken from earlier in the week. On Tuesday, President Obama joined the Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne, the American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks, and Harvard’s Robert Putnam at Georgetown University for a public conversation about poverty. And while you’d expect race to come up — what with the African-American poverty rate being nearly three times that of whites, the African-American unemployment rate being more than two times that of whites, and the African-American median household income being barely more than half that of whites — you would be incorrect. As the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates noted in response to this strange conversation, “the word ‘racism’ does not appear in the transcript once.”
Again, it strikes me as unlikely that simple bigotry is the reason. A more probable explanation is that mainstream American liberals like Obama and Dionne (Brooks is a conservative and Putnam is not explicitly political) have become so used to tiptoeing around white Americans’ racial anxieties that they cannot stop without a conscious effort. For the past 30-plus years, mainstream liberalism has tried to address racial injustice by focusing on the related but distinct phenomenon of economic injustice. The strategy, as Coates puts it, has been to “talk about class and hope no one notices” the elephant in the room, which is race. And for much of that time, one could at least make a case that the strategy worked.
But as I’ve been hammering on lately in pieces about Hillary Clinton, the ’90s are over. What made political sense in 1996 doesn’t make nearly as much sense today. Like the Democratic Party coalition, the country is not as white as it used to be. And the young Americans whose backing liberals will need to push the Democrats and the country to the left are the primary reason. If it was always true that the progressive movement could not afford to take the support of non-white Americans for granted, it’s exponentially more true now, when the energy and vitality of the progressive movement is so overwhelmingly the product of social movements — like the Fight for $15 or #BlackLivesMatter — driven by people of color.
As Hillary Clinton seems to understand, a key component of smart politics is to meet your voters and your activists where they are, rather than where history or the conventional wisdom tells you they should be. For the broader progressive movement, that means shaking off the learned habits of the recent past — and, more specifically, overcoming the fear that talking forthrightly about unavoidably racial problems, like mass incarceration, will scare away too many white voters to win. Economic and racial injustice have always been seamlessly interconnected in America; but as leading progressives learned this week, the time when liberals could talk about class but whisper about race is coming to an end.
By: Elias Isquith, Salon, May 16, 2015
“Pope Francis Makes Tea Party Heads Explode”: Why Steve King & Louie Gohmert Have It In For The Pontiff
The Bishop of Rome is coming to Washington in September to address a joint session of Congress, and boy are things already getting frisky. Pope Francis is an extraordinarily popular Pope who’s not afraid to wield that popularity for human rights and economic justice. In other words, he’s well to the left of most members of Congress, and he may well get up in their faces about issues near and dear to him. Since you’re sort of required to clap for the Pope, this is going to make for an interesting scene.
In late 2013, not long after his election, Francis wrote an extensive document making economic justice a centerpiece of his papacy. “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life,” he wrote, “today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality.”
“Such an economy kills,” wrote Pope Francis, denouncing the current economic system as “unjust at its roots” and one “which defend(s) the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation.” Such a system, he warned, is creating a “new tyranny,” which “unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.”
On foreign affairs he’s made his priorities known, too. Earlier this year, Francis helped broker the thawing of relations between the United States and Cuba, and just this week,the Vatican announced that it would sign a treaty recognizing a Palestinian state. As Patricia Miller writes in Salon, these sorts of moves aren’t some radical break in policy for the Vatican. It’s just that American conservatives were able to turn a blind eye to these actions before “rock star Francis” commanded their attention. “It’s more accurate,” Miller writes, “to view this particular step in the Vatican’s relationship with Palestine both as a continuation of the Holy See’s long-standing support for Palestinian statehood and as an expression of Francis’ overriding interest in fostering international peace—and his unique ability and willingness to put his finger on the scales to do so.”
The Vatican’s recognition of a Palestinian state under Francis comes at a time when the Republican Party is more reflexively “pro-Israel” — which is to say, pro-Netanyahu — than ever. It’s become routine, if not an outright litmus test, for Republican presidential candidates to reject the pursuit of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, a position that both Democratic and Republican standard-bearers have held for decades. The Obama administration has gone to great lengths to veto U.N. resolutions recognizing a Palestinian state as a favor to Netanyahu’s Israel, and yet Republicans still assault Obama as working hand-in-hand with the Iranians to assure Israel’s destruction. And now we’ve got an actual religious and political leader who has recognized a Palestinian state coming to address Congress.
The fine congressional reporters at Politico did that thing where they asked the usual funny, good-for-a-quote Republican suspects for their opinion on Francis’ upcoming speech in light of his treaty recognizing Palestine and other heretical moves, like his criticism of unregulated capitalism. And the members were, indeed, good for various funny quotes.
Rep. Jeff Duncan of South Carolina is stunned to see the Pope getting so “political” and demands he rein in his activities to more traditional church-y stuff. “It’s interesting how the Vatican has gotten so political,” Duncan said, “when ultimately the Vatican ought to be working to lead people to Jesus Christ and salvation.” Iowa’s Steve King echoed Duncan, saying he’s not sure that he’s as good of a politician as he is a Pope.”
Know your place, sweetheart.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp holds the interesting position that Catholicism is agnostic on issues of poverty, and Francis should stick to what he describes as Catholicism’s “non-negotiables,” like its opposition to abortion and gay marriage and its support for school choice. “How do you deal with a poverty problem? There’s not a Catholic [fix], contrary to the arguments of certain economists that work at the Vatican… But there’s a Catholic view on life, on marriage, on the rights of parents and education. So I hope he sticks to this.” As for foreign policy, Huelskamp gives Francis his permission to speak to “faith and morals… but on foreign affairs, maybe not.” Because morals certainly have no place in foreign affairs.
The quotiest of them all, Rep. Louie Gohmert, describes the Palestinians as “haters” and wants the Pope to know that they don’t take too kindly to his style of Popin’ down in East Texas. “The Pope is the head of his religion, and he makes those calls for himself,” Gohmert generously concedes, “but I represent 700,000 people from East Texas and a vast majority agree with me.”
There’s a whole lot more in here, including Rep. Trent Franks questioning Pope Francis’s grasp of scripture.
It’s fascinating to see these members trying to impose constraints on what’s acceptable for the Holy See to say in his address to Congress. Just a few months ago, conservatives were apoplectic that anyone would dare criticize Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to trash the President’s foreign policy before a joint session of Congress. The man has a right to speak his mind! It helped, of course, that Netanyahu’s mind and the Republican mind were one and the same. Now the Pope might come and say “Palestinians have rights too” and everyone’s all, Whoa whoa whoa, let’s stick to the fetus here, guy.
By: Jim Newell, Salon, May 15, 2015
“What The Godfather Of Reaganomics Gets Wrong”: Wink, Wink, Nudge, Nudge; More Distorted Reagan Nostalgia
Chris Christie just announced a big tax-cut plan. Well, of course he did. Offering such proposals is de rigueur for Republican presidential candidates. And it pretty much has been since the Reagan presidency.
No surprise, then, that Arthur Laffer, intellectual godfather of the Reagan tax cuts, remains in high demand on the right. Many GOP 2016ers — including Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Ted Cruz — have been publicly consulting with the supply-side economist who continues to joyfully preach the wonder-working power of cutting top marginal tax rates.
But Laffer is, shall we say, less than enthusiastic about my recent column here at The Week, in which I argued that some presidential wannabes were misinterpreting and misapplying the lessons of Reaganomics. As I wrote a few weeks back:
Republicans sometimes misuse Reaganomics to justify fantastical tax plans that promise deep rate cuts for the rich — both Cruz and Paul favor low-rate flat taxes — that will pay for themselves and boost the middle class through explosive economic growth. … Republican policymakers and voters have little reason — either from historical experience or empirical studies — to assume tax reform will generate a prolonged period of 4-5 percent GDP growth such that concerns about budget deficits and income distribution are irrelevant. [The Week]
In other words, a flat tax won’t supercharge growth enough to prevent us from losing big bucks. This is a rather modest claim and critique, one perfectly compatible with the idea that the Reagan tax cuts were still good policy. Reaganomics was a home run — just not an impossible five-run dinger.
Laffer is one of the most important public policy entrepreneurs of the 20th century, right up there with John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman. His official bio asserts his work was responsible for “triggering a world-wide tax-cutting movement in the 1980s” — and that is no vain boast. His famous Laffer Curve — an illustration of the trade-off between tax rates and tax revenue derived from the ideas of philosopher Ibn Khaldun — is indeed one of “the main theoretical constructs of supply-side economics.”
So it is disappointing that Laffer, in responding to me, offers such an odd, airy, and ultimately unnecessary defense of his life’s work. For instance: While Laffer doesn’t explicitly say the Reagan tax cuts paid for themselves, he doesn’t say they lost revenue, either. Yet he spends hundreds of words countering my claim that they didn’t pay for themselves. What Laffer basically argues is that since (a) income tax revenue rose during the 1980s, (b) the rich paid a higher share of GDP in income taxes, and (c) there were more employed people as a share of the entire adult population, then that must mean the tax cuts paid for themselves. Except he doesn’t actually say that. “Well, I hope you get the idea” is how he puts it. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.
Put aside for a moment that Laffer mostly avoids my evidence, such as a Treasury Department study concluding the Reagan tax cuts lost $200 billion a year and one by former Bush II economists that found income tax cuts only recoup a sixth of the revenue they lose through higher growth. A bigger flaw in Laffer’s argument is that he ignores everything else happening in the U.S. economy during the 1980s. Tax rates matter plenty — Laffer’s key insight — but they aren’t all that matters. Laffer ignores the big role of easier monetary policy in driving the recovery after the awful 1981-82 recession. And, yes, the employment-population ratio rose in the 1980s — as it did in the 1970s. Did the Reagan tax cuts cause the Baby Boom, too? Laffer also ignores the revenue impact of $115 billion a year in 1980s tax hikes and how the Tax Reform Act of 1986 nudged rich people to shift how they took their income to the personal income tax base from the corporate one. Laffer ignores a lot as he attempts to make a stronger-than-necessary case. The economist doth protest too much.
Laffer’s other big objection is that I downplay the growth effects of the Reagan tax cuts by cherry picking dates. Since the tax cuts did not go fully into effect until 1983, Laffer argues that’s the appropriate start date for the Reagan boom. Indeed, real GDP grew at a snappy 4.5 percent annually from 1983 through 1988. But Laffer’s timing is problematic. The recovery likely would not have been as strong if not for the 1981-82 recession itself. Sharp recoveries after downturns were the rule of the postwar era through the 1980s. And since the 1981 downturn was the deepest, a strong rebound would be expected. For example, the economy grew by 5 percent during the first two years after the awful 1973-75 recession.
Again, none of this means the Reagan tax cuts failed. It would be hard to find a reasonable economist who denied they boosted growth in the 1980s as the Fed battled inflation. The effects just were not ginormous enough to fully offset the direct revenue loss. More importantly, perhaps, Reaganomics — tax cuts, deregulation, entrepreneurial optimism — changed America’s longer-term economic direction. Economist Michael Mandel contends that “the impact of the policies Reagan set out in the 1980s, which slowly worked their way through the economy, helped lay the groundwork for the Information Revolution of the 1990s.” So, yeah, you can give Reagan a bit of thanks for your smartphone.
This is the data-driven, evidence-based analysis Laffer and other old-school Reaganauts should be making to today’s GOP and center-right movement. The real Reaganomics. With fantasy tax plans again abounding on the right, the presidential race could use a reality check more than more distorted Reagan nostalgia.
By: James Pethokoukis, The Week, May 13, 2015
“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