Saturday, February 28, 2009

Lost in the Midst of a Patriotic Fervor

I had discourse
with a plumber
who would euthanize, oh, say,
two billion people and seemed not to care

even know about the pain
his genocidal plans
would cause
And I talked

to a jobless guy
panhandling by
who thought that I
had a great personality

Poor deluded guy
I personally
am one who would
not consider wearing a flag

lapel button But I love these
American guys as fiercely
as they don’t want me
to love them

Go ahead and call me effete
if you must
I’ll be doing my best
to love you

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Bubble Riders Got Richer

Poverty and Policy Problems for the Rest of US

My friend Alex Kotlowitz is nearly done with a magazine piece outlining the many ways the city of Cleveland has been devastated by the collapse of the housing market. Cleveland’s problems are on the devastating side of bad; a rust-belt city built around good union manufacturing jobs, suffering from hundreds of millions of dollars worth of lost wealth, eroding tax base and unmet needs.

The other day, Alex and I vigorously debated the proposition that sub-prime housing problems caused the collapse of the larger housing market. Though it wasn't really Alex's position, I have a hard time with even the suggestion that sub-prime mortgage holders somehow caused anything. But we were engaged in a discussion that could have continued indefinitely.

After all, Cleveland homeowner households had a much higher percentage of sub-prime mortgages than did most urban markets. At ground level in Cleveland the flood of mortgage defaults, abandoned housing, personal bankruptcies and business closings must look like a cataract unleashed when the tailings damn of sub-prime mortgages washed out. Alex ended the discussion, graciously suggesting that it might be fair to say that the housing bubble burst and the sub-prime mortgage market collapsed in some places almost simultaneously.

I pushed hard against the notion that defaults on sub-prime mortgages were a first cause of our current financial problems for a couple of reasons. One, I really do believe I’m correct here. And two, it freaks me out that some conservatives (and large numbers of ordinary folks traumatized by their own growing financial problems) think that the nasty habits of sub-prime mortgage holders are to blame for everything.

If such a perspective were to prevail, it could lead to all sorts of scary policy outcomes. Like bailout programs kinder to bankers than homeowners. Like scapegoating low-income folks because they wanted to be homeowners, too, and because they were innocent grist for the commercial and investment banking mills grinding out securitized mortgages at great profit. Like policies that abandon rather than bail out and invest in hard-hit urban communities.

Anticipating the possibility of bad policy outcomes is time well spent, but not if it molds an argument about facts, however elusive those facts might be. That night I hit the books, scanning Dean Baker’s new book, Plunder and Blunder, The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy, and coming to the conclusion that I had better clarify a few things, particularly as I have no wish to be regarded as a dogmatic idiot.

A decent understanding of Baker’s work (you can see lots of it at might be to say that the collapse of the housing bubble and the subsequent loss of more than $1 trillion in wealth were caused by the inevitable collision of the forces that fueled the bubble in the first place with the forces that would pop it. Those forces included:

• Sustained and artificially low interest rates, primarily the work of the Fed under Greenspan;
• An artificially high dollar, primarily the result of export economies like China investing their cash in US Treasury Bonds in order to maintain American purchasing power and appetite for imported goods;
• Deregulation and bad regulation that allowed major financial actors driven by greed to develop, sell, swap, trade and insure a myriad of dubious services and securities;
• And job loss, especially high-paying manufacturing jobs, in the United States, caused by competition from cheaper imported goods and resulting in significant losses in household income concentrated in urban economies most dependent on manufacturing.

Though these essentially contradictory economic forces could co-exist for a period of time, they could not do so indefinitely. As the deflating of the bubble proceeded, the effects showed first in housing markets with a high percentage of sub-prime mortgages and adjustable rate mortgages (sub-prime or otherwise).

In not a few instances, households with sub-prime mortgages and ARMs had actually been steered into them in spite of the fact that they were qualified for cheaper and more stable conventional mortgages. Some qualified homebuyers simply received mortgages with disastrous terms lurking in escalating interest rates and onerous payoff conditions.

In other instances, borrowers sought and obtained ARMs that deferred principle and, even, interest payments, and created only temporarily affordable monthly mortgage payments. In the rush to securitize and sell mortgages, and collect the fees associated with midwifeing the securitized mortgage packages, lenders barely scrutinized borrowers.

In some cases, refinancing deadlines arrived for households with ARMs at the same time that job losses began increasing and home values in their communities began stagnating. With little or no equity in their homes, these households found new low-interest mortgages increasingly unavailable.

An honest reading of Plunder and Blunder wouldn’t likely lead anyone to the notion that a single first cause for our economic depression is identifiable. But Baker’s last chapter, “Learning from the Bubbles,” is full of quotable indictments of some of the villains, and they aren’t sub-prime mortgage holders.

“The financial industry’s conduct in the housing bubble was even worse,” Baker writes (pg. 141). “housing prices had sharply diverged from a 100-year trend…vacancy rates were at record highs…inflation-adjusted rents were not rising through most of the period of the housing bubble…some owners of rental units [converted] them to ownership units…Decreasing demand and increased supply lowers the price; what part of that reality did the highly compensated analysts fail to understand?”

Elsewhere, Baker neatly excoriates former Fed Board Chair Alan Greenspan. He also takes a swipe at the media, which he amply substantiates elsewhere.

“The leading villain in this story is Alan Greenspan. Greenspan mastered the art of currying the favor of the rich and powerful and held top economic positions under five presidents of both political parties. He also managed to gain a near cult-like following among the media. As a result, most of the public is largely unaware of how disastrous the Fed’s policies under his tenure were for the economy and the country (pg. 140).”

The cascade of terrible economic news that has characterized most of the last two years was almost inevitable. Except, of course, for the mega- and quasi-collapses of so many banking, insurance and brokerage giants that promoted the bubble in the first place.

The much ignored original sin here is the amount of wealth that was privatized in the form of dividends, salaries and bonuses during the bonanza years, leaving the now shaky financial giants without the resources to cover their losses. Almost to a man, or woman, the nouveau rich and richer of the last 15 years will get to keep what they took.

The rest of us will be left with the responsibility for developing, advocating and supporting fair, just and restorative polices, based on a clear understanding of what happened, and focused on communities where people live and work and engage the future.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Julie Came Around

Stoic endurance is for Julie
not a sign of strength
or weakness
but of missed chances.

In weather Julie senses quakerly
opportunity to see that of god
in every thunderstorm, every
dry spell. Even the lowliest,

fleeting squall reveals
god. Maybe, I
taught her that. Maybe,
it was in me once.

But today in DC, in sunny,
blustery cold, I am undone,
hardly reaching even no account,
unsatisfactory, stoic endurance.

I do not suffer unfairly,
only there does not seem to be
a piece of god in this cold.
It is said that as one

freezes to death,
numb indifference
is the blissful stage
before unconsciousness.

I wouldn’t know.
When Julie at four said,
my toes are frozen, she spoke
as we struggled with slushy sidewalks,

maneuvered between glacial piles
of snow, caught in a condensed,
relentless freeze-thaw-freeze,
I said, eyes to the sun, face to the sun,

body to the sun, do you trust me?
Yes, Julie said, with the fervor
of conversion and a prayer for warm toes.
OK. Good, then. Close your eyes,

feel the heat pulsing gently
Feel through cheeks.
See through eyelids.
Test the air, your nose

knows the way to the beach.
Note the orange glow of the midday sun.
Seen best with closed eyes. Heat
beating warmly. Walk the

beach with me? Savor the sun.
If we were in Ann Arbor now,
we’d be slogging through the snow.
But we’re barefoot on warm sand.

Sand actually hot on our toes.
Exotic, our naked, satisfied feet.
Are we warm yet?
And Julie said, yes, we are warm.

Our toes are so warm.
Our visit rich with our wonder.
Our lives focused this moment.
That message to Julie, coax a little warmth

from always available stock,
came around yesterday.
On the Metro platform, I turned to face the sun.
More brightness than heat, I could still feel it.

I could feel my satisfied feet grabbing sand.
And the cold and bluster drifted off,
leaving Julie and me at the beach,
so long ago, so fresh today, so warm.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service

Now fourteen years old, The Story of Jane, The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service begins this way:

“During the four years before the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion, thousands of women called Jane. Jane was the contact name for a group in Chicago officially known as The Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation. Every week desperate women of every class, race and ethnicity telephoned Jane. They were women whose husbands or boy friends forbade them to use contraceptives; women who had conceived on every method of contraception; women who had not used contraceptives. They were older women who thought they were no longer fertile; young girls who did not understand their reproductive physiology. They were women who could not care for a child and women who did not want a child. Some women agonized over the decision, while others had no doubts. Each one was making the best decision about motherhood that she could make at the time.”

My copy of “Jane,” by Laura Kaplan, is a quality paperback published in 1995 by the University of Chicago Press, which will hopefully overlook this, and any other, uses or misuses I might make of Jane’s contents.

There are any number of stimulating ideas here, beginning with the notion that there actually was an “Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation.” The phrase has echoes of the Underground Railroad. Of freedom from oppression. Of escape from servitude. Of struggle for human rights and human potential. Of all the uprisings and rebellions and revolutions that human beings must stage in order to get anywhere.

But we are never done. Never done with hoping for better or more, never done with throwing off chains, battering against limits. It’s no surprise, then, that the battle for reproductive rights didn’t end with Roe v. Wade, it moved on, morphing and flowing and raging across the plains of a seemingly endless frontier. Change only a few words in Jane’s opening paragraph and an exciting testimony to feminist struggle for reproductive rights could be a passable reproduction of a pro-life manifesto. And so it goes.

And while it goes, it seems increasingly clear that pro-life activists (to use their term for themselves) fight a fatally flawed war. Their unsuccessful effort to eliminate abortion has certainly reduced abortion availability and abortions, generally. Perhaps not surprisingly, their moral crusade ends up restricting the right to perform abortion to a few doctors, permitting those doctors to set their own, high rates for abortion services.

But in a kind of collateral damage inflicted by pro-life warriors, the near-monopolistic market for abortion services creates profit opportunity for abortion providers. This profit potential guarantees that there will always be clinic operators and doctors who see a commercial opportunity in providing abortion services to the general public. It guarantees that there will always be clinic operators and doctors who privately and quietly provide abortion services at higher prices to well-to-do women. It guarantees that pharmaceutical companies will see plenty of additional profit opportunity in efforts to develop “magic bullets” that will provide safe and hassle-free abortions. And it guarantees that unscrupulous and inadequately trained abortion providers will materialize to perform abortions at exceedingly high prices in places where they are illegal or otherwise difficult to obtain.

But if we want to reduce the number of abortions, reduce government’s role in supporting abortion, and reduce the economic and social cost of abortion, we should end monopolistic control of the existing "right" to perform abortions. We can’t do that by banning abortion. Nor can we do it by further criminalizing abortion providers. But we can begin to do it by teaching abortion techniques to nurses and nurse practitioners as we do with doctors.

Jane did it, teaching abortion techniques, as well as other skills, to women who were not medical professionals at a time when having an abortion was a punishable offense.

“The workers explained to each woman having an abortion that the group trained people the way anyone learns, by practice. Before an apprentice learned something new, she asked the woman having the abortion for permission…Including the woman having the abortion in the actual process added to the political dimension of their work. Not only were they demystifying medical practice for themselves but [also] for every woman who came to them (pg. 128).”

Today, it ought to be a simple task to train already prepared nurses and others to provide abortion services in the interests of improving and expanding medical care and reducing abortion and abortion trauma. And there are far more nurses and far more nursing schools than there are doctors and medical schools. Teaching abortion techniques to nurses and nurse practitioners would require no more than what Jane accomplished outside institutional settings and outside the law.

The obvious payoff would be in increased availability of medically safe abortions. Abortion would become much cheaper. But there is no reason to believe that abortion would become even more frequent.

If pregnant women seeking to terminate a pregnancy didn't have to travel for hundreds of miles to get access to abortion services, parental notification laws would become less onerous. Locally available and safe abortions would mean that young women, living in difficult circumstances, without reasonable parental support and without the resources to travel, would still have time to consider all reasonable alternatives to abortion, including having a child and putting it up for adoption.

Jane's story is a reminder that "we are the ones we've been waiting for." The practical impact of Jane's work, the empowerment that was one of the rewards of being part of Jane, and the organizing skills and political sophistication that members of Jane acquired seem inexhaustible and most available to those who work in direct ways for social change. Jane's history also makes clear why reproductive rights are inseparable from women's rights. And since only a very few people in power gain anything by standing in the way of the empowerment of others, Jane's story also makes clear why men ought to be placing a priority on reproductive rights, too. And in our time, those rights continue to depend significantly on access to safe, affordable abortions.