Archive for February, 2009
Thomas Friedman’s Feb. 24 New York Times column from South Korea read thusly:
For all the talk in recent years about America’s inevitable decline, all eyes are not now on Tokyo, Beijing, Brussels or Moscow — nor on any other pretenders to the world heavyweight crown. All eyes are on Washington to pull the world out of its economic tailspin. At no time in the last 50 years have we ever felt weaker, and at no time in the last 50 years has the world ever seen us as more important.
It seems there comes a price with all those years spent touting America as the world leader in well … everything, from economics to military might to democratic freedoms. Many of our leaders (i.e. Carter, Reagan, Bush version 1 and 2, Clinton) have led the charge in spreading democracy abroad, regardless of whether the people of the receiving countries desired it or not. Since the years following the Great Depression, our country’s pendulum has swung upward economically and in world influence. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing (OK, taking over a country and by brute force leading that country toward democracy when no one asked for our help probably is a bad thing, but I digress …) as long as we are willing and able to meet the challenges that come with such responsibility.
Or as Friedman poignantly quoted in his column a “senior Korean official:”
“No other country can substitute for the U.S. The U.S. is still No. 1 in military, No. 1 in economy, No. 1 in promoting human rights and No. 1 in idealism. Only the U.S. can lead the world. No other country can. China can’t. The E.U. is too divided, and Europe is militarily far behind the U.S. So it is only the United States … We have never had a more unipolar world than we have today.”
Is this a scary thing or a positive? At face value, it’s a touch scary. We aren’t exactly the most progressive country (though we seem to be increasingly headed that way, paragraph 6) in the world if you think about some of our present or past ideals. Some among us, about 49 percent, according to a recent poll, favor a “comprehensive government health care system,” and 10 percent would like to see such a system with “limited” government. The Obama administration, perhaps and finally, may be able to get this done, but what of the last few decades?
Just yesterday, I spoke with a man whose wife was diagnosed about a year ago with ALS. He has liver cancer and chemo was ineffective (and actually made his condition worse). He is waiting on a transplant. He can’t work, can’t pay the bills and he’s taking care of his wife by himself, when someone should be taking care of him. He’s behind on his mortgage and is near foreclosure. Universal health care could help these folks at least be able to not worry about the medical stuff and focus on making the house payment, buying food and the like. Or, perhaps, Obama’s housing plan could provide similar relief. But our love affair with big business, pharmaceutical companies and their lobbying efforts have proven our idealisms are, or at least have been, ill-conceived.
We were one of the last to jump off the “slavery” ship (Most developed European nations abolished it before us, including Russia, France, Denmark, Sweden, the British Empire [except in some colonies], etc.) After that, the country limped through Reconstruction, the Black Codes, Jim Crow, lynchings and segregation before finally deciding that our black fellow-countrymen were actually, and not just in writing, our equals. Further, it’s well documented that we aren’t exactly trailblazers when it comes to education either.
So, I think there’s many areas in which, in fact, we aren’t leading and have lagged behind ideologically. Militarily, of course, we are leading, and maybe this is the area that matters most. Or, perhaps our one-month sojourn under a new administration has made folks forget about the last eight years of failed policies. Lest we forget, with the exception of George Bush and his administration, many of those folks who supported those ideologies (Sanford, Perdue, Palin, Jindal and the like) are still in Congress; they just don’t hold the majority.
Make no mistake, today, this is a great nation, regardless of our previous moral lapses. But if one measures greatness by the average life span of the populous or by quality of living or by educational achievement, etc., we simply have a long way to go. Because of our military might and our insistence on carrying the world banner, folks look to us. And that’s fine. Obama seems to be up to the task. I just think it’s peculiar that given our many shortfalls, the eyes are still all on us. And perhaps that speaks even more to our standing, and in turn, our immense responsibility.
The Associated Press reported yesterday that South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford may take the $8 billion or so of stimulus money allocated for his state, despite largely disagreeing with the Obama administration’s version of the stimulus plan.
… he says ultimately he represents the interests of the almost 5 million people of his state, and he will look over the plan and decide whether some parts would work for South Carolina. — AP
Given the state of education, Medicaid and jobless funding in South Carolina, this is certainly good news. As I stated here, Sanford’s refusal of the money would have been a cruel slight at many who are hurting in this state, not to mention the struggling agencies. Of course, the state may have gotten the money anyway since there’s a provision that says the legislature can accept the money with or without the approval of the governor.
In fact, if one takes a look at how the money will be divided, South Carolina is among the states which will received the highest percentage based on the gross state product. So, of course, Sanford probably doesn’t want to seem like a hypocrite by railing so heavily against the Obama’s package and then turning around and accepting money via a bill he didn’t agree with. Other than that, it’s not clear why Sanford would be so against taking the money, since S.C. fares quite well in getting its cut of the pie.
The Associated Press has reported that a few governors may opt to refuse economic stimulus money, including this guy, the governor of my home state, Mark Sanford, R-S.C.:
This, despite the fact that many of these states, including South Carolina, are in dire need of extra cash. In South Carolina, cuts in education have come frequently and local school districts are scrambling in attempts to save money, yet not have the local cutbacks affect what happens in the classroom. The state’s Medicaid program nearly dropped hospice care from its coverage to save cash and other areas are severely being short-changed because of the economy.
Thankfully, according to the AP,
… governors who reject some of the stimulus aid may find themselves overridden by their own legislatures because of language (U.S. Rep. James) Clyburn (D-S.C.) included in the bill that allows lawmakers to accept the federal money even if their governors object.
He inserted the provision based on the early and vocal opposition to the stimulus plan by South Carolina’s Republican governor, Mark Sanford. But it also means governors like Sanford and Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal — a GOP up-and-comer often mentioned as a potential 2012 presidential candidate — can burnish their conservative credentials, knowing all the while that their legislatures can accept the money anyway.
This is ironic indeed since Clyburn is also from South Carolina. Sanford’s rejection of any stimulus money, as Democratic Party chairwoman Carol Fowler seemed to imply, would be cruel to people in this state who stand to benefit greatly from the boost:
He’s so ideological. He would rather South Carolina do without jobs than take that money, and I think he’s looking for a way not to take it.
In short, Sanford doesn’t care about the best interests of the people in his state. He cares about upholding the ideals of his own party. Party over people: That’s a nice mantra, albeit, not a very endearing one … or compassionate one.
Sanford’s office responded thusly, as spokesman Joel Sawyer said,
We’re going through a 1,200-page bill to determine what our options are. From there, we’ll make decisions.
But it may not matter. Hopefully, the lawmakers in Columbia will have enough sense help out our kids, our unemployed, our sick and others who could benefit from relief from all the financial bleeding this state has suffered through lately.
According to a recent U.S. News & World Report story, conservative talk show commentator and Christian Broadcasting Network founder Pat Robertson criticized Rush Limbaugh’s comments, heard here:
in which Limbaugh said he wished, not only for the stimulus plan to fail, but also for Obama himself to fail in the presidency. We know Limbaugh to be obnoxious and so irrationally conservative that he can’t see straight — and often, downright mean — but he said during this interview with Sean Hannity that he hoped Barack Obama failed in his presidency IF he threw out Bush’s tax cuts and signed on to many traditional “liberal” policies.
Here, in a clipping from the U.S. News & World Report article, Robertson, when asked,
So you don‘t subscribe to Rush Limbaugh‘s “I hope he fails“ school of thought?
That was a terrible thing to say. I mean, he’s the president of all the country. If he succeeds, the country succeeds. And if he doesn’t, it hurts us all. Anybody who would pull against our president is not exactly thinking rationally.
Some, like a fellow who named himself “Indiana” on the U.S. News & World Report Web site, have claimed the criticism of Limbaugh was ill-conceived:from
Limbaugh has to be the most miserable person on the planet. The policies he would like to see enacted are anachronistic and inadequate, and he probably knows it. That’s likely why he sounds so mad all the time. Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathon is probably overkill, but we need big plans, not small ones. We need big thoughts and big ideas, not more of the same. More of the same has run this economy downward. Tax cuts for the rich have gotten us nowhere because the rich care about one thing, and believe me, it’s not about helping those below them on the economic social ladder. They care about getting richer and holding on to their precious treasures. The bank debacle proves as much. The automaker execs flying into Washington on private jets proves it again. We hear Limbaugh’s passion. Heck, he should come down to earth and use some of that passion to help get things done for folks who are hurting, but he would be unwilling. He’s not hurting, and he’s got two decades of broadcasting vested and wrapped up in the alternate view.
It’s disheartening that more GOP members overwhelmingly voiced their opposition to the Obama administration’s $787 billion stimulus plan. They, of course, made it clear why they did it: not enough (or the right kind of) tax cuts, an “orgy” of spending, as Lindsey Graham dubbed it, etc etc. Despite President Obama’s numerous statements that he would like the bill to be a bipartisan effort, I think it was a rancor move by the GOP to so overwhelmingly vote against it, as if to say, “We can’t have it our way? Fine. We’ll take our cookies and go home.”
Republicans did have an alternative, which was John McCain’s $421 billion plan that focused more on cutting income and payroll taxes and less on spending. Critics like to rail that we shouldn’t just throw money at the problem and that the best way to fix some of our economic woes is to give more tax cuts to businesses, thus creating jobs. But here’s the rub: That sounds like a good idea, but our problems are much larger than job creation at this point. Some of our most basic institutions are in dire need of assistance. This bill, indeed, “throws money,” quite rightly, at three such areas, among others:
Education — In my home state (South Carolina), local school districts are scrambling to make ends meet amid widespread budget cuts from the state. Local officials seem to be doing a good job, at least in the county I live in, of cutting wherever necessary without having those cuts affect what happens in the classroom. But if the cuts continue, what happens in the classroom will eventually be affected, whether it be from cutting teacher salaries and benefits (some of this has already happened) thus not attracting quality educators … from making reductions in the quality of supplies, books and the like to save some cash. The current bill offers $44.5 billion to help local districts attempt to delay cutbacks and layoffs.
Health care — Giving tax cuts to small business is fine, but many small businesses can’t afford private health insurance, and Cobra is outrageous. The bill offers a 65 percent subsidy for those on Cobra, among other provisions, like assistance for states to continue funding Medicaid. One case in my state was that of Medicaid-funded hospice care. The state said it would discontinue paying on hospice, thus forcing those with chronic conditions to visit hospitals, rather than get cheaper home care for their conditions. One child with cerebral palsy was costing $131 per day to be treated by hospice professionals. His mother was paying with Medicaid. Had hospice been dropped, she would have taken him to the hospital or other doctors for the care he needed. One day in the local hospital here for him would have cost Medicaid more than $1,000. It makes fiscal sense to do all we can to keep Medicaid well-funded, lest folks with chronic conditions are forced to settle for indignant care at local hospitals, given the ballooned cost of basic health care. What sort of drain would it mean for the economy if hospitals across the country tanked because there was no system like Medicaid in place to help meet the needs of people who require expensive treatment just to keep them alive? Medicaid is not the least of the institutions which needed money “thrown” at it.
Unemployment — Again, this state’s jobless funds are in trouble. The bill provides $40 billion for states’ unemployment benefits.
(The above information about the stimulus plan comes from this AP report.)
Thus, the Obama administration’s bill is really more than just an economic stimulus; it’s a wide-sweeping plan to not only help put more money in individual pockets, but to bolster some of our most basic, and critical, institutions. It’s also at least a beginning to a potential fulfillment of one of Obama’s campaign promises: to fix broken schools, broken health care and broken infrastructure. It’s far-reaching. Why Republicans see this as a bad thing is a mystery. There were certain elements about it that I question. I haven’t checked if these were eventually axed, but they include:
- A $246 million tax break for Hollywood movie producers to buy motion pictures;
- $650 million for the digital television (DTV) converter box coupon program; and
- $600 million to buy hybrid vehicles for federal employees. (From: CNN.com)
The Republicans’ notion of smaller government sounds good in theory, but in critical times like this, it’s simply inadequate for such weighty problems. It’s equivalent to if there existed only one small hospital and one hotel in a large metropolis: the institutions are dwarfed by the need. In times like these, the notion of small government breaks down.
It’s also interesting to note that politicians and talking heads who tout such an idea are on board when it comes to certain areas (gun control, financial deregulations, for instance) and all for government intervention in other areas (abortion, gay rights, censorship, for instance). They are all for that silly notion of trickle down economics (Let’s not actually help the poor and middle class too much, let’s wait for the rich’s resources to run down the pipeline. We saw how well that worked as banks and lenders greedily operated almost unchecked, darn near running our entire financial system into the ground. They were clearly interested in funneling some of their cash our way, huh?). Yet, in the latter areas, some on the right believe government has (and should have) a monopoly on morality and seem to think we can’t take care of ourselves and that we should read our Bibles more. The contradiction is shocking.
Regardless, the bill passed to the chagrin of many and will supposedly create about 3.5 million jobs, along with “throwing money at” struggling institutions. We can only wait to see how it will pan out, but what was needed was sweeping reform that tackles many critical areas at once, and right or wrong, this bill gives us that.
Eight top bankers appeared before Congress this week to tell lawmakers and the public how they are spending funds from the bailout. Previously, as I noted here, the CEOs were “declining to” release how the money is being spent. This failure of accountability on their part was, of course, irresponsible and quite pompous, and the American public had a right to be angry at these folks.
The bankers who testified this week seemed to confirm as much. Yet, their audacity is far from vanquished in my view.
Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit said his salary would be set at $1 with no bonus until the company makes money again.
He also struck an apologetic tone for letting the bank consider buying a private jet plane after receiving bailout money. The bank ultimately scrapped the plan under pressure from Obama.
“We did not adjust quickly enough to this new world,” Pandit said. “I get the new reality and I will make sure Citi gets it as well.”
“We understand taxpayers are angry” and they are right in demanding that institutions receiving their money take a “conservative, sober and frugal” approach to using it, said Kenneth D. Lewis of Bank of America.
And the proof is in this statement: “We did not adjust quickly enough to this new world. I get the new reality and I will make sure Citi gets it as well.” New world? A world in which every piece of luxury bank execs want is not at their fingertips? A world where, dare we say, financiers must come down to earth, struggle and try to get through this crisis with the rest of us? The new reality is that it’s not OK — and that it’s quite disgusting — to receive bailout money and then turn around attempt to buy a private jet with that same money. The new reality is that these folks must be held accountable for where the money is going, and if they aren’t willing to be audited whenever lawmakers see fit, they should receive no further assistance. It’s a positive that Pandit’s salary will be $1 until the company turns around — as if he needs more — but I think many still have a sour taste in their mouths over these folks (and let’s not forget the automakers execs who were also reluctant to give up their precious luxuries to help their companies save a buck).
John J. Mack, head of Morgan Stanley, had it right when he told the House Financial Institutions Committee: ”Both our firm and our industry have far to go to regain the trust of taxpayers, investors and public officials.”
On Feb. 9, President Barack Obama held a campaign-style town hall meeting in Elkhart, Ind. On Feb. 10, he was at another one in Florida. These were unprecedented — at least in the last eight years and possibly before — and a refreshing break from the tradition of supporter-only, screened events, where under Bush’s administration, some crowds were even quizzed on their support for the president. Smacks a bit like Communism or Nazism, no? According to Think Progress:
Bush even screened the assembled group of soldiers he would meet in Iraq during a 2003 Thanksgiving visit: Soldiers had to fill out a questionnaire asking whether they supported Bush.
Obama on the nature of the town hall meeting themselves, said:
Here’s the deal on questions: First of all, we didn’t screen anybody, so there’s some people who like me in the audience, some people that don’t, some people agree with me, some people who don’t. It doesn’t matter. We want to take questions from everybody.
What I think is even more noteworthy is that he held the meetings in unfriendly territory, according to how folks voted, essentially reversing what Bush did during his tenure. McCain won the county Obama spoke at in Indiana by 12 percent and the one in Florida by 11 percent. Of course, if someone doesn’t like Obama, chances are they aren’t going to be interested in attending one of his events, but since they weren’t screened, you never know what sort of mix composes the crowd.
The meetings were refreshing indeed and one person from the St. Meyers crowd summed it up well when he said, to paraphrase, “Thank you for coming to listen to us. This hasn’t happened in eight years.”
It’s funny. I can go for days without posting anything — for lack of inspiration or anything that generally hacks me off, I guess — and then watch the news for two hours and come up with numerous things I could write about. Go figure. I’ll include two of those here.
- Even if it may be, by some accounts, the better of the 24/7 news networks as far as fair presentation, less FOX News-esque garbage, there’s still plenty of garbage to go around. I point to a brief segment with a reporter named Allen Chernoff, where to explain the last stimulus plan given to the banks, Chernoff, like a first-grade teacher, began throwing dollar bills down in front of the camera to illustrate the fact that the feds simply threw money at the bank disaster to attempt to salve the bleeding. Then, and even in a more cartoonish manner, he pulled out a piggy bank to attempt to explain the current proposals under the new $800 billion plan. At least, I think that’s what he was talking about. I sort of tuned out when the pink pig appeared. The female host was right on, probably to the chagrin of the producers — who must of thought having this goofball illustrate the most serious economic crisis in this country since the Depression with airborne dollar bills and a pink piggy bank was a good idea — when she said she felt like she had returned to grade school. I felt the same way. News channels shouldn’t feel the need to insult our intelligence this way, yet they continue with this foolishness. Of course, their ultimate goal is getting increased viewership, not spreading information. If their goal was the latter, CNN and the rest of them would be more like PBS or C-SPAN.
- Speaking of C-SPAN, I watched some of Washington Journal this morning with Sen. Tom Coburn and Roll Call reporter Emily Pierce. During one of the call-in segments, some wahoo was speaking about the economy and talking about how he was at an unemployment office recently. Clearly frustrated by the problem of illegal immigration, he made a comment that all the illegal aliens in the particular office he visited were taking good jobs from legal Americans. First, I doubt he went from one Hispanic person to another, asking for their green cards and documentation, thus factually proving each person in there was illegal. Second, he’s one of a unfortunate many who see brown skin and equate them with either holding illegal status in this country or with crime in general. This was a commentary of racism the hosts and the guest were glad to sidestep. When are folks going to become reasonable and compassionate in their dealings with other human beings? Will it take a whole other century? While it’s true that some Hispanics got into this country illegally and probably get government services via fraudulent documents, Hispanic people aren’t inherently illegal aliens or criminals, and this person had no proof that any — and in all likelihood, not even one — person in that office he visited was actually illegal. He simply made an irrational assumption — and an offensive one — based on fear, racism or whatever.
In a Feb. 8, 2009 column, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Cynthia Tucker supplied her view of Black History Month, dubbing it, “quaint, jarring, anachronistic.”
Coming from a black person, this comment itself may sound jarring. But it’s really not. As Tucker notes, even after Carter G. Woodson’s original 1926 Negro History Week went into effect, black folks were still the but of racial epithets and racial acts. Lynchings were still imminent for many. Segregation was still very much in force. Then, as now, Black History Month or Week or whatever we want to call it, means little, for those recognitions do little to repair scars, smooth hatreds or open locked minds.
As a child, I certainly remember sitting through special lessons in class geared to teach us about the important contributions of black people through America’s history, from Stowe to Tubman to Douglas to Du Bois down to King and Jackson (Jess, not Michael, though Michael has made important contributions as well). But even then (although it probably didn’t occur to me at the time), it merely seemed like we were just throwing black folks a bone, as if to say, “Sorry about those 150 or so years of slavery and another 100-plus of oppression and inequality under the law. Here’s a month just for you. Enjoy!”
I wonder how black children or youths feel nowadays when it comes time for the lessons on black leaders throughout history. Do they feel proud? Undermined? Embarrassed? No doubt, those lessons are important and every child, black or white or brown or yellow should be well-grounded in our own history. But shouldn’t we now, in the 21st century with a black man holding the highest office in the land, move past all the silliness of giving certain groups special tokens simply for being a certain color? As the new president has continually stressed, black people’s history is so inextricably bound up with America’s history that none of us can escape it. And why would we want to?
Tucker also notes that many traditional textbooks “gloss over” certain ugly periods in our history like Jim Crow and Reconstruction and the Black Codes. I would say this is largely true. Frankly, I knew little, if anything, about Reconstruction, lynchings or Jim Crowe before going to college. Some of that lack of knowledge falls on me. I didn’t have the hunger for learning that I do now. But part of that falls on our educational system. I knew all about Black History Month, even as a tyke. But after that month was over, it was back to pilgrims, stage coaches and manifest destiny (Interestingly, we learned less about the human atrocities resulting from that “destiny.” We did, however, touch briefly on the Trail of Tears. Thousands of Native Americans relocated from their homes and thousands dead. But let’s quickly move on.)
In short, at this point in our history, we can now, and should, move past the necessity for Black History Month. Of course, as a white person, it seems tougher for me to theoretically and socially to say such a thing than it is for Tucker. But perhaps that’s the point. The fact that it seems harder for a white person to say that proves the point. It’s time to move on and integrate the history of black folks with the history of America, both in our textbooks and in our social conscious. Or, as Tucker concludes:
Americans young and old, black, white and brown, will understand that black history and the nation’s history are one and the same. — The Atlanta Journal-Constitution