Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Achenbach for fun, Baker for the facts

Really, the debt is not a big problem

Joel Achenbach, author of a lot of "Why Things Are" and, sometimes, "Why Things Aren't" books, is generally great fun. Informative and humorous, he can tell funny, riveting stories about things that are generally neither fun or riveting. A recent example, "The Wow Factor: Reading between the pixels of the Hubble's latest images," which ran last December in the Washington Post, reads quick and easy and shares just enough science to make casual readers dangerous at dinner parties.

The Post frequently uses Achenbach to cover complex topical stories that need more than a little explaining, but his most recent story, "Will the debt break Washington?" tramples all over familiar ground, leaving behind little steaming piles of opinion valuable, perhaps, to farmers.

For primary source, Achenbach uses Bill Gross, founder of a large investment company, to pound what appears to be his main point, namely the national debt is "awful" and "hideous" and, in the worst case, either a Ponzi scheme or doomsday for future generations. None of this is actually true, but more to the point, none of it is helpful. If successfully reducing the debt becomes the highest immediate priority for Washington then several things happen along the way, including immediate and major tax increases, dramatic cuts in social programs, likely throwing the economy back into recession. If the hysteria around this issue should continue to grow, it seems plausible that banks and brokerage houses could even get their holy grail, the privatization of at least a portion of Social Security.

Achenbach also relies heavily on William Gale, an economist at the Brookings Institution, his source for the notion that large deficits now shift the cost of problem-solving onto future generations. But ultimately, Achenbach relies on himself. The new health care bill, which Achenbach admits will pay for itself, actually makes things worse "because its spending cuts and new taxes could have been used to reduce the deficit ... instead of being an offset for an entitlement expansion." In view of the prevailing notion that Congress routinely creates new programs without paying for them, the point is bizarre. After all, a program that pays for itself is, according to Brookings, most Republicans, and a host of pundits, a thing of beauty and the very definition of fiscal responsibility. In this case, the program that paid for itself also extends health coverage to another 25 million Americans, which ought to be celebrated as a tiny bit of social justice rather than disparaged as mere "entitlement."

Achenbach gives a little ground in his debt-is-coming, sky-is-falling assessment. "The latest news from the Treasury is hopeful: Tax revenues are slightly higher than anticipated so far this year. The TARP program to bail out financial firms has proved far less costly than expected. Investors from around the world still eagerly bid on Treasury notes at auction," he writes. And Achenbach does quote the far from panicky Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Orszag tells him that he believes the Obama administration can balance the budget, excluding interest payments, by 2015. Orszag concedes that reducing the debt will require political action in the future, presumably some combination of tax increases and spending cuts, but his comments do not support Achenbach's next point, which establishes parallels between Greece, Iceland and the United States. In the upshot, should the largest economy in the world go the way of a tiny tax haven and one of Europe's weakest economies then, yes, I suppose Achenbach will have been proven right.

But how different his piece would have been had he asked Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) for his opinion. Fortunately, we can go directly to Dean for a progressive economist's view of the story Achenbach tells. Here's Dean's opinion, in its entirety from his "Beat the Press" blog:
"More Debt Fearmongering at the Washington Post

This piece includes the information that the national debt "totaled $8,370,635,856,604.98 as of a few days ago." Boys and girls are you impressed by that big number? Are you scared yet? This is Fox on 15th here -- they'll keep trying.

This sentence continues by telling readers that this number is not "even counting the trillions owed by the government to Social Security and other pilfered trust funds." How did the author determine that the trust funds were "pilfered." The government didn't do what he wanted it to with the money? Wow, that gives a reporter the right to say the money was "pilfered." Apparently it does at the Post.

The article does not include the views of any experts who do not view the debt as a serious problem. It presents an inaccurate assertion (in the context presented) from Brookings economist Bill Gale that the debt: "This [running up the debt] is all an exercise in current generations shifting burdens on future generations." Actually, the debt being run up at present is helping future generations by keeping their parents employed, improving the infrastructure and providing them with a better education. There is little or no real burden associated with this debt since much of the debt being issued is held by the Fed. The interest on these bonds is therefore paid to the Fed, which in turn refunds the money to the government.

Last week, the NYT reported that the Fed paid more than $47 billion in interest to the government. So, where is the burden on our children? If we do get the economy back to normal levels of output the deficit will be at a manageable level. Over the long-term, if we don't fix the health care system, we will face serious budget problems, but this is an argument about the need to fix our health care system, not about the deficit."

I probably could have confined my response to Achenbach to quoting Dean's opinion alone, but where's the fun in that? Joel Achenbach's got opinions, I got opinions, too.

Friday, April 9, 2010

What Do Progressives Want?

OK, it wasn't the health care bill we got

Marrianne's cousin Kevin sent a link to a piece by blogger Ian Welsh. In his piece, "Kos Calls For Progressive Civil War," Welsh shreds Kos. "It's time for Kos's 15 minutes to end. The man's stupidity, hubris and willingness to be used by a president who is objectively a conservative means he is now doing more damage to the Left than good." Oh, my. We are angry, aren't we.

Admittedly, Kos's call to campaign against Kucinich in a primary seems blockheaded. Whatever the Left's problems may be, a Kucinich in Congress isn't one of them. It ought to be equally clear that Obama isn't standing in the way of a resurgence on the Left, either, but Welsh thinks so: "Those who want to go after Kucinich are acting as Obama's and Rahm's heavies. acting as enforcers for a president who believes in indefinite detention without trial, who has expanded the war in Afghanistan, gutted civil rights and who wants to force every American to buy health insurance from private companies," wrote Welsh.

Maybe I'm dense, but this seems a little hyperbolic. Obama doesn't appear to believe in "indefinite detention without trial," he just seems to be unwilling to take the issue on. Such a stance may be morally weak, but it isn't equivalent to gutting civil rights, either, though Welsh may have more in mind than the way the Obama administration is dragging its feet on Guantanamo and criminal investigation of torture. Certainly there is a critical Left perspective to bring to bear on Obama's strategies regarding health care, Afghanistan and a host of other issues, but that doesn't make Obama a conservative or suggest that Obama considers Kucinich a major obstacle to his agenda, whatever it may be.

Arguably Obama's agenda is a lot clearer than the Left's. We may want universal, single-payer, and, if we were expecting to get it this year, then our failure to achieve it would be bitter, indeed. On the other hand, if our goal was simply the bill that actually passed, there'd be no need for a Left, at all. The problem lies in defining political and legislative goals for the Left that keep progressives in the discussion and push the boundaries of the possible.

Single-payer is, in that regard, an important ultimate goal for progressives and ought to be a defined part of every health care discussion. But we are not defeated just because we don't achieve it. More people will be insured as a result of this legislation. Insurance companies will have more customers, it's true, but being barred from excluding preexisting conditions will cut into profit margins, as well. And state health insurance exchanges offer potential for further government involvement in health care cost control and, even, the direct provision of health care.

Given the political climate in which this was all fought out, a global economic collapse, a vastly expanded federal debt and hysteria on the right, it's hard to see how a better bill could have been passed. Passing the bill last summer, instead of this spring, would have been better, of course, but it didn't happen. Progressives and labor unions might have been able to accomplish it, if there had been a greater willingness to tax "cadillac" health care plans, but too many people couldn't see a way to do that and protect union members, too. In the upshot, a weaker plan passed nine-months later when progressive members of Congress finally decided not to oppose the bill on that basis. Regardless, this bill was always going to be the step before the next bill, which will take more unity on the Left and among Democrats than either Kos or Welsh appear willing to acknowledge.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Tom Geoghegan's Which Side Are You On?

A book about labor and justice

I just finished reading Which Side Are You On?, published originally in 1991. Written by a labor lawyer in Chicago, Tom Geoghegan, a man who knows too much--about how badly the union movement has been screwed by government and bolixed up by its own leadership and left to die a lingering death by the rest of us--knows too much for his own moral comfort. But Geoghegan's honest and important book should earn him a break from his angst about failing the cause.

Who knows, it has been 20 years since the book came out, maybe he has let some of the guilt and pain go. But last I heard, he was still a labor lawyer in Chicago, still wishing and hoping for the legal case that would break the pattern of rulings against workers organizing to form a union, however improbable such a case would be.

It's hard to say exactly when Geoghegan himself came to the conclusion that such hopes were nowhere near realistic, but sometime during his career, after losing cases that he felt the courts were morally obligated to decide in favor of his clients, he came to the conclusion that labor's decline was directly traceable to the passage "in 1947, over the veto of Harry Truman" of Taft-Hartley, the law that "outlawed mass picketing, secondary strikes of neutral employers, sit-downs; in short, everything that [John L. Lewis and the Mineworkers] did in the 1930s."

Geoghegan writes that it was years before the damage from Taft-Hartley was obvious; the labor movement would grow quickly for ten more years, and even after the industrial unions began losing ground, rapidly growing public employee unions would hide the fact of decline. Geoghegan's not whining here, but he's not the only one to point out that the history of American labor would be a different history if not for Taft-Hartley.

"The CIO, in 1946, was planning a big organizing drive in the South...this drive, Operation Dixie, was pulled back at the last moment to avoid alienating Southern Democrats. and the Republicans, meanwhile [with majorities in both houses of Congress], went on to pass Taft-Hartley, to stop just this kind of mass organizing. If the CIO had organized the South, American history would have been different, because labor would have been a truly national force, and not a regional one, trapped in the Northeast and Midwest."

I'd like to quote so much from the book I'd end up reprinting most of it here, but Geoghegan is also a wonderful writer. Anyone who merely read my excerpted version would be missing the real thing, an intimate view of workers and their families struggling with and for their unions, and of their leaderships, the good, the bad and the ugly, from an informed observer who chose labor's side a long time ago, but knows himself to be an outsider.

I wrote a letter to the Washington Post a while ago, extolling charter schools and asserting that the best practices of charter schools and public school reform efforts needed to be regarded as complementary activities aimed at the shared goal of rebuilding quality public education. In response, a friend, another Chicago lawyer, wrote me arguing that the charter schools were actually part of a systematic attack on the union movement. We exchanged several e-mails on the subject, but she remained convinced that I was inadvertently stooging for a right-wing attack on labor and I came to the conclusion that she saw charter schools as a for-profit conspiracy to privatize education. Had we continued our discussion, I'm pretty sure that we would have found common ground, but I am more certain that our whole discussion would have been broadened substantially had we first read Which Side Are You On?.

Broadened theoretically, at least. After all, nothing in Which Side suggests a practical course of action, especially 20 years later and immediately after the sustained and tortured fight to pass health care reform. Perhaps not so ironically, it is the current day coalition of Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats, not unlike the coalition that passed Taft-Hartley over Truman's veto 60 years ago, that made prompt passage of a better health care bill impossible. Sixty years ago, before Taft-Hartley, unions organized by card check--getting the signatures of a minimum of 30 percent of workers at a plant in order to form a bargaining unit that the employer had to recognize. Today AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions have prioritized the Employee Free Choice Act, which would once again allow for card check, instead of the NLRB regulated elections that employers have learned how to win with regularity simply by firing leaders on the shop floor and intimidating workers.

Lots of questions arise. In many ways progressives are lost without a viable union movement. A few years ago, writing in In These Times and attempting to bridge a perceived gap between labor and other progressives, I wrote this: "Corporate America and the Republican Party have forged a partnership that ... decrees the contours of our economic and cultural life. If progressives ever want to counter this corporate hegemony, they must learn from the past and embrace the strength and potential of the union movement (from "Labor's Future Is Ours," In These Times, January 21, 2005).

It's difficult for me to say now that I still believe firmly in what I wrote in In These Times just five years ago. A better health care bill could have been passed and sooner, if labor leaders had not opposed a provision taxing "Cadillac" health care plans last summer. It would have been a better bill that would have taken a bigger step toward universal, single-payer health care. But after reading Geoghegan's book describing the deck stacked against the union movement for half a century, it seems silly to blame labor for something all of us, unions, the Democratic party, progressives, a vast coalition of non-profits, couldn't accomplish.

But what then are we to do if we can't blame labor or save it? The answers, of course, are complicated. We should certainly support the Employee Free Choice Act, even if it doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell. There is a long list of other things to tackle, including the demilitarization of our economy and foreign policy, underwater mortgages, financial regulatory reform, the restoration of urban public education, action on climate change, and more. All of this would help, were we able to accomplish it. But labor's decline has made progressives much weaker. Perhaps, we've lost clarity about what matters most. Tom Geoghegan's book, written 20 years ago, is still profoundly relevant.
"Lately, I've been writing this book. I've been writing it on weekends and in the mornings before I go to work, and now that I've reached the end of it, I hate to let it go. Because in writing it, I come closer to solidarity with ... well, not the workers, but other people ... than I do in the day-to-day living of my life.

"Here's a depressing thought. Maybe in a book, and only in a book, is solidarity 'forever.'

"But there's a great danger in writing a book. I can already see what's happening. I keep some steelworker waiting on a corner, walking up and down. What kind of solidarity is that?

"That's where the aesthetic view of politics leads. That's why it's dangerous.

"That's why when you shut the door and begin to write, someone should ask you, right then,

"Which side are you on?"

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Incompetent Traveler and other updates,

including hatred of polytheists

Brendan flew unaccompanied to Detroit on March 27. Older sister Julie met him at Detroit Metro where they laid over for some six hours before catching a plane to Seattle. It must have been about midnight, maybe 1 a.m., east coast time when they finally landed. Older brother Nate met them at the airport and wisked them to the Seattle home he shares with partner Nikki. Cousin Abraham and partner Irina where there, also, having flown up from San Francisco to spend 48 hours or so in cousin adventures.

While Brendan was away, Marrianne and I planned to play. But sisters Dale and Teri, brother Mark and various nieces and nephews planned for a Pesach seder at Mom's house; given that this might be Mom's last Passover, it made sense to go, even if it would tear a chunk out of the time available for Marrianne and I to do fun and loving things. So, at Julie's instruction, I went to Priceline to seek an affordable roundtrip ticket to Chicago and back. It worked--going early Monday a.m., returning mid-day Wednesday would cost just over $200, a deal at today's prices.

Marrianne and I did squeeze in a date on Sunday night, but I had to get up at 3:00 a.m. on Monday to catch the Super Shuttle to the airport for my six o'clock flight (Metro trains don't start running until 5:00 a.m., that wouldn't get me to the airport and through security in time for my flight). Everything worked pretty decently except for discovering after I reached the airport dreadfully early that my flight wasn't Monday at six, it was Tuesday at six. My bad.

There was a time in Chicago when people would ride the Blue Line out to O'Hare to sit in the observation lounge and watch planes taking off and landing. The golden age of aviation, you know. Pan American Airways to the Orient. Good stuff. Brother Mark used to take son Abraham out there for a visual fix on wide open airport spaces and the wild blue yonder. It wasn't so much like that last Monday at Washington National. More like sleepy, droopy people, closed kiosks and stores and the dark before dawn. There was a Starbucks open to kill a little time until the Metro opened and provided a cheaper way home. And there was the astonished looks and dropped jaws of those around me who shared in the news that I had arrived at the airport the day before my flight. He looks normal, they were thinking, but maybe he's dangerous, or bad luck, anyhow.

When I got home, I put in a little time on a longer poem I'm working on, but mostly I was a sleepy, droopy shell of a man. A sleepy, droopy shell who knew he needed to get up at 3:00 a.m. the next day, also, so that he might get to the airport on time. I really wanted to get to the airport on time. And, after a quiet evening at home on Monday night, arrived on time.

Passover is the most universal of Jewish holidays, I think. It involves eating, it involves ritual that honors those who gather around the table, it reminds us of captivity and celebrates both liberation and fidelity to an ethical understanding of the world. It also teaches us a complete disregard for a fact-based understanding of history in favor of stories and legends that evolved to serve the institutional goals of a religious faith with which I have a complicated relationship.

Personally, my preference, above all, is for the commandment to remember when we were slaves in Egypt. In light of that memory, the Jewish declaration of "never again" after the Holocaust, should more appropriately be "never again to anyone, anywhere, including Palestinians. I recognize, though, that among American Jews there is a decided bias towards "next year in Jerusalem," rather than the remembering when we were slaves in Egypt thing. It is with some satisfaction that I note that African-Americans, by and large, see the Exodus story as having little to do with Jerusalem and more to do with slavery, which is one of the reasons for the universal appeal of Passover--that, and the fact that Jesus' last party with his posse was a Passover seder.

Anyway, since about 200-300 AD, the real underlying motivation for the seder, at least according to the learned rabbis of the period, is the commandment that the story of the Exodus and the rescue by God, working through Moses, of the Jewish people must be told every year to the children. This commandment was honored in detail by brother Mark, who planned and conducted a 45-minute seder which captured and maintained the interest of the very youngest cousins (going on 4- and 5-years-old) in attendance. Manu and Ollie, the sons of niece Stacy (mark's stepdaughter), knew their own parts (the Four Questions, as well as other bits of info Mark had rehearsed with them, visibly and actively anticipated the moments for direct participation, and hurled themselves in the most full-bodied way into the ceremony, delivering both questions and answers with awesomely good timing.

It should be noted that while Manu and Ollie participated with great maturity, most Epton family seders, at least since Dad's death and even before, border on chaos because of the behavior of Teri, Dale and I. OK, maybe, mostly me. All I know is, they get really loud and Mark, who always leads the seders because he's the serious one, obstinately soldiers on. Julie called during the seder because she and Brendan and Nate were thinking about Mom (Grandmother, as she is always called). I put the phone down next to Mom so they could hear what Grandmother was hearing. For her part, Mom was pretty much ignoring the chaos, smiling benignly at Mark and radiating affection for the better behaved, especially Manu and Ollie and Ethan, her one and, to date, only great-grandchild. I don't know how long the Seattle connection stayed open, but they probably heard Mark patiently leading and me bellowing. (Mom always used to say things like, "Jeffrey, stop bellowing," which, of course, I always saw as unfair until one day in San Francisco, during a champagne breakfast following the San Francisco Marathon, someone at another table turned to me to ask, "would you please stop bellowing?" at which point I yelled out "Mom!" and things deteriorated from there--but that's another story.)

Of course, there was an extra wine poured for Elijah, that stiff-necked prophet-warrior from about 700 BCE, the time of stiffest competition between polytheism and the monotheistic God of the children of Israel. I had hoped to be on the seder agenda, so I could do my pedantic best to remind everyone that we were slaves in Egypt and ought to recognize the aspirations of the Palestinian people, as well as tweak Elijah for his awful intolerance in regard to Jezebel who, as Phoenician princesses married to kings of Israel go, was not really so bad. At least not compared to Elijah, that rabblerouser who stirred up the Jewish hoi polloi, inciting them to murder 450 priests of Baal, the god of rain and sweet water, and a personal favorite of Jezebel's. Sure Jez was hot for Elijah's blood after that incident, but her murderous rage arguably paled next to Elijah's (and the one God's) hatred of polytheists. The longer poem I've been working on incidentally, is an attempt to resurrect Jezebel and cast a critical eye on Elijah.

Regardless, I probably could have injected myself into the seder anyway, but I was so impressed with what Mark had done, I restrained myself. It was a grand seder. Mark led with grace and competence and Dale cooked everything and did a wonderful job. Unfortunately, most Eptons don't care much about food--Audrey (Mom), Teri, Mark and I, at least--so Dale's efforts had to be appreciated more by in-laws who have a more balanced understanding of the role food plays in life than by her own siblings. Still, most of the rest of us do clean up after meals decently well.

Left Chicago on Wednesday. Brendan returned to DC on Thursday and Marrianne's mom (Audrey M., as opposed to my mom, Audrey E.) arrived the same day to spend the long Easter weekend with us. Between picking up everyone at their various arrival points and making other preparations, I didn't get back to the business of blogging, at all. And not for the next four days (through yesterday).

On Saturday, I called Mom (Audrey E.) to see how she was doing. Not so good, she seemed incoherent. On Sunday, she was suffering a lot of headache pain, so Teri took her to the hospital where they tested her for everything, but suspected a stroke or bleeding on the brain. As it turned out, it was neither one. She had a bladder infection, which frequently causes disorientation and temporary memory loss in other women. Though we all recognize that Mom may not have a lot of time left, it was very scary to talk to her and not have the conversation make any sense. But Monday she was better, released from the hospital with the infection under control, even though there's still no explanation for her severe headache pain.

Monday afternoon, I drove Audrey M. to meet one of her nieces living in the area, who would later get her on the bus back to Pittsburgh. It was a good visit, full of meal preparation and eating and easy conversation. And by the time I got home, the word from Chicago was that Mom was home and watching the White Sox Opening Day game. Mark Buerhle threw seven shut out innings, Paul Knoerko homered in the first and the White Sox won.

Mom says she's getting a lot of lunch and dinner invitations from friends. She jokes that they all think she's going to die soon and want to see her before she gets too weak. But she's not going anywhere, she claims, as long at the White Sox have a shot at winning it all. Most years that fantasy is pretty much finished by mid-July, but White Sox pitching is looking pretty strong. If the hitters come through, I think this is going to be a good year in Chicago.