Thursday, November 29, 2007

Watching The Wheels Spin

This ain't rocket science, guys...
CINCINNATI (Reuters) - Every politician in the U.S. presidential race claimed to be fighting for the middle class, and it seemed a sound strategy -- until the Democratic front-runners tried to define who, exactly, was middle class.

While Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama couldn't agree during a recent debate whether someone earning $97,500 or more could be considered middle class, voters have little difficulty judging who isn't -- the presidential candidates themselves.

"None of them really represent the middle class," said Rick Fulmer, 52, who works at the YMCA as a fitness trainer. "Both parties are tied to big business. It takes millions to run for president."
This is both ridiculously easy and profoundly difficult.

The middle class is easily defined, economically. Since the average family of four earns $45,000 a year, the safest definition of the "middle class" is the 80% or so who range around that point. Let's say any family (of neaarly any size) that earns from $35,000 to $75,000, just to be on the safe side, because census data says that a third of American households earn in that range.

Simple, right? Here's where it gets tricky: people who earn more (and some who earn less) believe they are middle class, when in fact they are not.

It's the belief that matters, however. A family that earns around $200,000 (two wage earners, with two kids, say) that lives in New York City or its suburbs will assume it's middle class, because that $200,000 doesn't buy much, once you factor taxes, mortgage, heating, and health insurance into the mix. Perhaps their disposable income is more along the lines of someone earning $75,000 but lives in Texas or Florida.

See? Not middle class, yet very middle class. The family in New York can't afford private schools, even if their income says they should. So education initiatives are very important to them (indeed, they probably moved to a district with better schools because of that very fact).

Too, when firefighters and some teachers make $75,000 a year or more, the definition of middle class becomes even fuzzier. While technically these earners are upper-middle class, you'd have to agree that their jobs keep their values firmly planted in middle class terra firma.

When politicians talk about "middle class," they're talking about the values of hard work, saving a buck, trying to live the American ideal of 2.6 kids, a house, two cars in the garage and providing for the family.

The proverbial "chicken in every pot" of a few generations ago has morphed into a Nintendo in every living room (or a PC, if you buy Microsoft's mission statement), but that's the spirit of the middle class.

Which is what makes the election of George Bush all the more unlikely, since he was born on third base thinking he'd hit a triple. He shares NO middle class values. He's never worked a hard day in his life that wasn't for a photo opportunity.

Sure, he can talk a good "middle class" game, but how can someone truly understand the middle class unless he (or she) has either lived it, or gone out of his way to understand it, like the Kennedy clan has?

What makes this discussion even fuzzier when it comes to Democrats, who traditionally have been and rightly should be the party of the middle class, is this interesting tidbit from the Heritage Foundation: 2005 tax data showed Democrats represent nearly 60 percent of the wealthiest one-third of congressional districts -- those with a high number of people earning more than $100,000 per year.

Admittedly, most of those are on the coasts, which means much higher costs of living, which means, yes, these "rich people" are the very essence of the middle class. Unfortunately, the tax code is skewed towards viewing them as rich, which means they get hammered by things like the alternative minimum tax, even if like you and I, they send their kids to public schools and ride the subways.

(OK, full disclosure...I'm not middle class. I make much more money, so extract the "me" and "we" bits out, even if I do ride the subways and sent my daughter to public school.)

This might be part of the disagreement that Obama and Clinton are having over the increased Social Security tax that Obama proposes. It would hit New Yorkers hard, "middle class" New Yorkers.

Personally, I have no problem with Obama's proposal. While there is no current Social Security crisis, I've always believed that Social Security taxes should not have a ceiling and in fact, should be applied to ALL income (with the possible exclusion of bank interest earned in a savings account, but that's a different part of my NotPresident platform), and that this revenue really should be locked away and not used in return for IOUs from the general spending fund.

So what are "middle class values," anyway?

Well, here's what I believe and if I was counseling a candidate, what I would tell him or her:

1) Hard work is its own best reward, but is also a path to the American Dream. I'm aware of the naivete it takes to swallow that, but enough people do that you have to account for it. The American Dream was never about being wealthy. The Horatio Alger stories saw the hero only achieve a decent living, never wealth. He became comfortable. The "chicken in every pot" ideal. To that extent, this is an attainable value. To the extent that this value gets warped by the economic royalists into "the American Dream is a million bucks," and the concommitant tax cuts they espouse and manipulate the average American into supporting...well, that's a con game. People don't get rich through hard work for someone else, and studies show that most people who work hard for themselves can't even promise a comfortable lifestyle.

2) Since Christ championed the poor, we should help them too. This will piss off an awful lot of hard left readers, but the simple fact is, America is a Christian nation, and while that has negative connotations in some circles, it shouldn't be perceived as evil. Hell, I'm Christian, and what goes on in the Religious Right offends me, too. But Christ's teachings about "Do unto others" and the other rules he set forth for living in a state of grace hold deeper meaning to most Christians, the ones you meet everyday in stores and at the PTA. They really Do believe that the poor need our help. This message gets warped by the economic royalists as "the poor are all about handouts," which distracts attention from the real reasons middle class families can't get ahead: the profiteers and pirates of the corporate classes.

3) If you leave me alone, I'll leave you alone. True dat. I think most families, apart from the gossip aspect, are happy not to know what their neighbors are up to, because it makes them fair game for intrusion themselves. This gets corrupted by the economic royalists into the pro-life logical fallacies and the pro-gun "from my cold dead hands" trope. I'm not sure why. I think it has to do with another distraction, possibly as government and the rich explore how to exploit the new technologies available for intrusion into control and economic devastation. But that's just a guess.

4) Finally, I'll have what he's having. Pretty simple, this is about not just fairness, but comparative greed. We all know this as "Keeping up with the Joneses." Naturally, as any TV watcher will tell you, this gets exploited by the economic royalists to create a need where none exists (really, if a Prius can get you from point A to point B, why would you need a Hummer?), which is the linchpin mechanism that feeds all the other exploitations I've listed above.

So this really is simple. And hard. And confusing. But once you grasp it, you can go with it.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Hump Day Comedy Blogging

A man hails a taxi in Times Square. He gets in and closes the door.

The taxi begins to pull away into traffic, but the man hasn't given his destination yet.

So he taps the driver on the shoulder...


The man says, "I'm sorry! I just wanted to let you know where I was headed!"

The driver takes a breath and says, "It's not your fault. This is my first day on this job. I just quit my last job of 25 years."

"What did you do?"

"I drove a hearse!"

An Unexpected Unholy Alliance

The diplomatic chess game around Iran's nuclear program includes an unlikely bishop. According to several well-placed Rome sources, Iranian officials are quietly laying the groundwork necessary to turn to Pope Benedict XVI and top Vatican diplomats for mediation if the showdown with the United States should escalate toward a military intervention. The 80-year-old Pope has thus far steered clear of any strong public comments about either Iran's failure to fully comply with U.N. nuclear weapons inspectors or the drumbeat of war coming from some corners in Washington. But Iran, which has had diplomatic relations with the Holy See for 53 years, may be trying to line up Benedict as an ace in the hole for staving off a potential attack in the coming months. "The Vatican seems to be part of their strategy," a senior Western diplomat in Rome said of the Iranian leadership. "They'll have an idea of when the 11th hour is coming. And they know an intervention of the Vatican is the most open and amenable route to Western public opinion. It could buy them time."
Did someone say Ahmadinejad is crazy?

Not so much, it appears. One had to wonder at the alternating hot and cold rhetoric he was spewing, and now we have a big clue as to how he felt he could get away with it.

Not only would a Papal intervention make Americans sit up and take notice, it would immediately bring to bear pressure from all of Europe, South America, and much of Russia. Knowing that, to risk an invasion of Iran, Bush would have to carefully calculate whom he could count on to defy the Pope (not many European nations would dare do that).

How much influence does Benedict XVI wield?:
Last April's release of 15 British sailors held by Iran — a decision that Ahmadinejad called "an Easter gift" — came just a day after the Pope had sent a private letter asking for their liberation. "There was respect for the request of the Pope," said [Iranian Vice-Ambassador to the Vatican Ahmad] Fahima
Wow. That is stroke. If Bush or Blair had made that request, and I'm sure they did, it would probably have been laughed at.

Believe it or not, Iran has the second largest ambassadorial presence to the Vatican in the world. Only the Dominican Republic has a larger embassy staff.

How likely is the Vatican to side with Iran in any confrontation that might blow up into war?:
Though Vatican officials say they are concerned about Iran's development of nuclear arms, the pontiff is both doctrinally bound and personally inclined to pursue a negotiated settlement at almost any cost. In 2003, then serving as a senior Vatican Cardinal, the current Pope was firmly behind John Paul II's opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Indeed, many in Rome cite parallels between the current push from American hardliners to confront Iran and the walkup to the war in Iraq. "The Holy See hasn't forgotten what happened in Iraq," says one Vatican insider. "Seeing how that situation has developed, there is great, great prudence on the part of the Holy See. The judgment shown on Iraq weighs on the Iran situation."
So the Pope is a defeatist Democrat!

A difficult and complex situation has just taken a very interesting turn. Not only will America inflame the Muslim world with any invasion of Iran, that same invasion not only would spike oil prices and make Europe and China angry, it would also force the Pope to come out strongly against America, and Benedict is not particularly known for his soft diplomatic language.

You could almost say he was the Catholic Bush...

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The "Hail Mary" Pass

You're going to read a lot over the next few days about Bush's courage in tackling the Middle East peace process.

Keep in mind that this issue was supposed to be settled with the establishment of a stable democracy in Iraq, that Iraq's neighbors would somehow, mirabile dictu, gaze in wide wonder at the sight of the Sunni lions lying with the Shi'a lambs, beat their swords into plowshares and study war no more, accepting Israel as brethren in Abraham.

Yea, how's that working out?

So, in Annapolis today, we see the start of phase two of Bush's foreign policy: If you can't beat 'em, bore 'em.
Mr Bush said in prepared remarks ahead of the Maryland conference that the aim of the meeting was to launch talks, not conclude an agreement.

Mr Bush is hoping to find a solution before he leaves office in early 2009.
(parenthetically, I wonder if this was how he pulled Gentleman C's in college and grad school: waiting until the last possible minute, then cramming?)
In remarks prepared for delivery to the diplomats and representatives from more than 40 countries and international organisations, Mr Bush said the goal of creating a Palestinian state to co-exist in peace alongside Israel would not be easy.

"Such a state will provide Palestinians with the chance to lead lives of freedom, purpose and dignity," Mr Bush said in the statement released by the White House.

"And such a state will help provide Israelis with something they have been seeking for generations: to live in peace with their neighbours."
...except that Hamas was distinctly not invited to the meeting, and Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, which for all intents and purposes is the major sticking point to a dual state in the region.


In fairness to Bush he is downplaying the importance of this summit, but his true ambitions are obvious from the fact that over 40 interest regional and world leaders are sitting in on the talks, including China, Russia and much of the EU. He's not doing this just to talk about talks about talking.

Had this been 2003, and we were not tied up in a horrible invasion of Iraq, I'd give him a fifty-fifty chance of succeeding. I simply don't see how a rushed solution to problems that have existed for thousands of years is going to be either effective or long-lived. The enormous pressure he can bring to bear on Israel and some of the surrounding nation-states can make them bend to his will, grudgingly, but to get the Palestinians, particularly Hamas, to agree to terms is beyond ludicrous.

They're not stupid. They have calendars, and they know Al Gore won the Peace Prize this year, so they understand Bush's self-aggrandisement in this matter and the urgency he is under. They'll ask the moon, and when they don't get it, they'll stomp their feet and lob a few shells into Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

I expect there will be lots to talk about before they even get to the peace process:

1) Three Gazans die in Israel strike

2) US fire kills Iraq bus passengers

3) Putin says US behind poll boycott

Given Bush's history in foreign affairs, things will deteriorate to the point where he could have done better by steering clear of the entire situation.

And we'll pay that tab, too, when the time comes.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Banks To Blacks: Drop Dead

Quite literally:
In September, the Federal Reserve released a study that found 52.8 percent of African-Americans got a high-cost home loan when they refinanced in 2006, compared to 37.7 percent of Latinos and just 25.7 percent of whites in the same year.

A similar study by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, known by its acronym ACORN, in September found the same pattern even when income was equal.

According to ACORN, upper-income blacks were 3.3 times, and Latinos 3 times, more likely than upper-income whites to have a high-cost loan when purchasing a home in 2006.

"I keep hoping one day I'll do a study where race doesn't play a part," said Liz Wolff, author of the ACORN study.

"But clearly, there is a racial bias," she added.
What happens is a self-fulfilling prophecy: blacks get higher priced loans because "they are a greater risk" (translated: they are more likely to live in bad neighborhoods), which means that blacks are more likely to default on a mortgage, which means more abandoned homes, which leads to more crime, lower tax revenues and property values.

In other words, blacks are more likely to live in bad neighborhoods because they are more likely to live in bad neighborhoods.

Go fig.

This wouldn't be such a big problem if blacks had an out, to move to neighborhoods that weren't so "bad" other words, the barrier to moving to a nicer neighborhood weren't set so high.

See, what this mortgage default story really is about is segregation: the inability of American society to assimilate people of colour, despite five decades of fatally flawed affirmative action programs.

I say "fatally flawed," because the results clearly don't match up with the intent, which means the process itself was flawed.

It's clear that in order for American society to become a level playing field for everyone, it has to make the field level: that levelling isn't going to happen on its own, nor will it happen because of "market forces," because market forces don't take fairness, equity, or equality into account, as this mortgage story demonstrates.

Market forces are designed to supress weaker economic competitors in order to bolster the stronger (think of it as a transfer of funds upward). Nothing wrong with that in terms of business competition: if your company is being hammered in the market, then you're doing something wrong.

To apply market forces to social problems-- like segregation, like global climate change-- may fix some aspects of the problem, but these solutions are window-dressing. They are not comprehensive solutions.

The implementation of social welfare programs, most notably Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society", were quickly throttled during the 70s and 80s by the proto-neoconservative movement.

And we see how they offered no alternative solutions that have worked at all. Even to this day, even forty years after recapturing the White House, conservatives ideologues have been unable to find workable non-governmental solutions to problems that are way too big for anything but government to solve, despite having had five separate Presidents take a crack at them, as well as more than fifteen years of dominance in Congress.

It is idiotic that, more than forty years after LBJ's initiatives, we're still talking about how to give the poorest and most downtrodden among us a leg up to compete on equal footing with the rest of the country.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Image Is Everything

There's a very interesting opinion/analysis piece in today's New York Times magazine, that contains this intriguing paragraph:
We are locked once again in a war of ideas. And public-diplomacy enthusiasts would have us gird ourselves once again with the weapons of advocacy. But the political weapons of the cold war are as antiquated today as the military ones. The 1950s witnessed the birth in the non-Western world of mass media as well as mass politics. The U.S. could dominate the airwaves not only of South Vietnam but even of Japan, as Osgood describes; and we could thereby reach the small but growing segment of society engaged in political discussion. That world is gone forever. Today, as the Djerejian report observed, “Arabs and Muslims have a surfeit of opinion and information about the United States.” We are bound to lose any battle of spin control, whether carried out by a pal of the president or by the most credible Arabic-speaking proxy.

From this we may draw two opposite conclusions. One is that we must simply accept that the cost of acting in our national interest is that publics in the Islamic world will shower us with contempt. The alternative is to recognize that public opinion is the medium in which we now operate. All diplomacy is therefore public diplomacy. When Vice President Dick Cheney and other senior officials split hairs over torture, that shapes our ability to conduct the war on terror more powerfully than do the interrogation techniques themselves. What we say about ourselves no longer has much effect; but what we are seen doing — on occasion, what we are caught doing — matters immensely.
(emphasis added) That last sentence sums all that up nicely: it no longer matters what we say in private to world leaders whom we are trying to persuade, but what we do in public.

This is a new paradigm brought on, I believe (and as James Traub examines) by the rapidly changing face of what passes for mass media in not only this country, but the world. Time was, we could beam Radio Free Europe behind the Iron Curtain and be guaranteed to reach a mass audience, despite the technological sophistication of the Soviet Union in blocking signals. Better still, our only competition in passing along information was the state-run media. We ran on equal footing, which gave us equal access to the audience and allowed the audience itself to choose which information to receive.

Now, not so much. In a world dominated by media of a more personalized, more localized nature, the Internet, e-mail, blogs and websites, we're fighting a new diplomatic battle with old tools. People aren't gathering as much information from mass media, which is now more entertainment-oriented anyway. "American Idol" reaches people that would shun "60 Minutes", and these people are forming their opinions from opinion makers who "are in the know", who post blogs from talking points disseminated from a central core of information.

Sort of like how the Republicans operate Fox News and the right wing fringe bloggers in this country. In our own nation, where 100% of people have free access to *some* form of information, nearly a quarter are still operating under the delusion that George W. Bush is a good man.

Ratchet that scenario around a bit, and you can see how Pakistan, for all the blatherings about free elections and the treaties signed between Musharraf and the warlords, is still under siege by radical Pakistanis and their Islamist allies. It doesn't take much: all it really takes is a neighbor to say "I read on Al-Jazeera's website that the US is secretly sending troops into Kashmir", and that's the end of all the public pomp.

As with all mass media, taking this informal information dissemination system apart to figure out how to subvert it (like was done using "Radio Free Europe") is going to take some time. How do you create an alternative information system in what amounts to a closed loop?

This is why Traub's point is so incisive: we cannot afford publicity of the sort the Bush administration has so disingenuously and flagrantly thrown around: waterboarding isn't torture, it's an enhanced interrogation technique; we're winning in Iraq; we will stop Al Qaeda by killing civilians in a country where Al Qaeda didn't exist until we invaded.

It doesn't matter what the inarticulate bastard in the Oval Office says, even if he is perfectly misunderestimated. In the case of international relations, specifically in advancing the cause of freedom, what we say is not nearly as important as what we do. And we are years behind the curve in advancing our cause in this fashion.

Particularly when your public "statements" have amounted to as series of embarrassing bungles:
In [Karen Hughes'] first appearance in the Middle East, in 2005, this Bush confidante and fellow Texan avoided substantive issues while reassuring audiences that “my most important title is Mom” and that Americans “greatly value many religious faiths.” The trip was a very public fiasco for the White House; thereafter, Hughes appears to have been largely withdrawn from circulation.

Hughes was not the first casualty of the administration’s attempts to improve America’s global image. That distinction belongs to Charlotte Beers, a Madison Avenue executive who produced and broadcast throughout the Middle East a series of uplifting video clips called “Muslim Life in America.” Beers retired for “health reasons” in 2003 after the campaign was widely ridiculed in the Arab press. She was succeeded by Margaret Tutwiler, a former State Department official, who was welcomed with great fanfare and who stepped down after a few months.
See, we're no longer trying to persuade a people to join in uprising against a monolithic imperialistic faceless tyranny.

That's Al Qaeda's domain, and they seem to be doing a pretty good job of painting America in the 21st Century as the Soviet Union. No, we're trying to prevent people from joining in an uprising by putting a face on our nation, a name to our freedoms, and revealing the true heart of the American people, that we recognize tyranny and are prepared to deal with it and join with the rest of the world in shunning it, that we dislike governments that bully and restrict and harm the powerless and poor.

That's a message, I fear, that we can't establish from the government we have, or the government we will elect. That's going to have to come from we, the people.