Friday, July 31, 2009

The Professor and the Police Officer

Now here is a story that I really wanted to ignore. I was annoyed that at the end of a one hour news conference almost entirely devoted to explaining a lot of the nuances of the health care bills working their way through Congress, the president gets tripped up by one question about the arrest of Henry Gates in Cambridge. Then the media--which knows that extended discussion of all of the details of health insurance reform, while undoubtedly important for every American, is a sure-fire ratings loser--spends most of the next few days talking about whether a disorderly conduct arrest was racial profiling, or whether the president was too judgmental in his comments about the police, etc., etc. President Obama acted quickly to defuse the situation, but ended up drawing even more attention to it by inviting the two participants to the White House for beers, leading to even more media attention to the entire incident.

But on the other hand, what's the harm, during the middle of the summer, in taking the nation's attention away from all of the wonky policy issues slogging their way through Congress--not only health care, but also an energy bill, a financial reform bill, and a Supreme Court nomination--and focusing for a few days on something that is in fact really important, namely the issue of whether we can all get along with one another. The Gates incident is perhaps appropriately seized upon as a metaphor for changes that are taking place in the country. On the one hand, we have an African-American professor, leading a privileged life, but still feeling that he is not treated with appropriate respect, and still sensitive to the issue of racial profiling. On the other, a cop trying to make quick judgments in difficult situations that are always subject to second-guessing. Is the police officer an appropriate symbol of white resentment at the upside-down world many working class white people now may feel they are living in, with an African-American serving as president? Is it worrisome that polls show that most whites take Crowley's side, and most blacks support Gates? How much does deep-seated and unacknowledged racism still subtly affect the decisions of police officers, judges, teachers, and other white authority figures? These seem to be questions worth thinking about.

Both Gates and Crowley deserve a lot of credit for making some intelligent statements about this whole incident, promising to continue their dialogue, and trying to use it to make people think about important issues.

(For an analysis of this incident from the point of view of the president's use of mediation techniques, go to my mediation blog.)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Lily Burk

Last school year, we were fortunate to have the help of a senior drive my two kids to school almost every day. He volunteered for the job so as to get a prime parking space. The fourth member of their car pool was a junior named Lily Burk, who lived less than a mile away from our house. Since my kids were only eighth graders, they were often left out of the conversation between the two upperclass members, but they still had a daily relationship with Lily. This is why my family is still having trouble coming to grips with Lily's brutal murder this past weekend, a crime of unbelievable senselessness and stupidity. My son is shocked into more than his usual non-responsiveness. My daughter is scared to get in the car without making sure that all of the doors are locked. Both can't believe that something like this could happen to someone they know. My wife and I can't stop thinking about it.

Is it possible to draw any useful lessons from such a horrifying event? Some people will try to second guess the parole system that allowed the alleged perpetrator, who had many encounters with the criminal justice system before, out on the street. But if we kept this parolee in prison longer, we would have to keep many hundreds of similar convicted criminals locked up as well, most of whom eventually need to learn how to return to society. This country already has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and prisons often serve as breeding grounds for even more crime. We might take a bit of comfort from the knowledge that even though the system did not prevent this crime, it did try to keep this suspect under fairly tightly supervised release; and he was actually arrested by the police for another offense about an hour after the murder, long before this crime was even discovered. As soon as the police were led to the car and identified the fingerprints on it the next morning, they realized that they already had the suspect in custody. We also have no reason to worry about whether the perpetrator will be dealt with severely. So while no one would suggest that the criminal justice system worked perfectly in this case, it is also difficult to suggest a way to tighten up this system that would make us safer overall. What we should perhaps be thinking about is investing more in prison programs that have a proven success in reducing recidivism. (See for example this recent article in the New York Review about the surprising success of some programs, and the surprising amount of interest in this issue from figures on both the left and right of the political spectrum.)

Another reaction people have to this event is the urge to protect our children from crime. But we cannot lock our kids up either, and we cannot keep them under constant adult supervision until they are adults themselves. Instead we need to teach them how to develop their own street smarts, so they can learn how to recognize potential dangers and try to avoid them. Even then, we cannot prevent all dangers, as there was probably no way that poor Lily could have protected herself from this one. Lily in fact had volunteered at a homeless shelter, and was seemingly pretty well-prepared to deal with city life. Ultimately, what we may need to do is accept a certain amount of risk in our lives, as we do every time we get in a car, where we are much more likely to face death or injury than even on the mean streets of LA.

Perhaps most importantly, we just need to treasure the people around us and make the most of our time with one another. I can't say this any better than Lily's parents did:

“The thing we want people to know about Lily is that she was a beautiful person and that she was looking forward to her life. She was funny, warm, kind and empathetic. She was deeply and widely loved. Lily was looking forward to going to college, to being a writer, to what was ahead. She had a really bright future and it was cut short. If there is anything that people can take away from this horrible tragedy, it’s that life is fragile and that they should live every minute of it fully.”

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Why is health insurance reform so hard?

Perhaps the most important change that the Obama administration needs to accomplish, and is in the process of accomplishing, is to change people's attitude toward government. Ronald Reagan led a revolution thirty years ago that managed to convince most of the American people that government is always bad, and that the private sector can do anything more efficiently than government. While people still understand at some level that we need the government to build roads, collect garbage, run schools, organize the military, inspect food and drugs, operate courts and prisons, and perform numerous other functions; at another level people are still deeply mistrustful of the government doing anything. I believe this deeply ingrained attitude, one that many politicians both respond to and often encourage, is the main reason why it is so hard to pass health insurance reform.

Because of the power of an ideology that says private industry does everything better, many people simply refuse to accept the evidence that other advanced countries spend much less and get much better results than our inefficient, hodge-podge of an insurance system. They hear the horror stories of families filing bankruptcy to avoid their medical bills, or of being unable to change jobs because of health insurance, or of being denied insurance because of a pre-existing condition. They know that the tens of millions of uninsured are driving up costs for the rest of us. Yet with all its flaws, people will still believe that what we have must be better than any solution the government can devise, simply because the current system is mainly privately-run, and any reform must come from the government. Many people cannot be convinced otherwise.

It may be tempting to some to believe that the opposition to health insurance reform proceeds from evil or corrupt motives (see for example this post on Daily Kos), but I prefer to think of it as simply blinded by ideology. Certainly there are some Republicans who see the health care debate purely as a political struggle. Senator De Mint's comment that defeating health care reform was a means of defeating Obama seemed to be an example of that. There are people who put political victories ahead of crafting legislation that benefits people and reflects their needs and wants. But there are other forces at work in the opposition too: a sincere belief that the cure must be worse than the diseased system that we have, a fear of changing a system that does work for a lot of people.

How else to combat this attitude other than the patient, consensus-building approach that the President's team has been using to get us so close to passing a major reform bill? Some would rather force a solution down the American public's throats. I think it is better to continue to work to change people's entrenched attitude that government can't do anything right.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

It's Up to Congress to Legislate.

According to CNN, at least some Democrats in Congress are frustrated that they are not receiving more specific directions from President Obama on health care reform legislation. These Democrats need to adapt to a President who is a consensus-builder, not a dictator. They also need to take another read of the Constitution.

In the modern era, we have gotten so used to thinking of the President as some kind of all-powerful commander, because of recent presidents' expansive readings of their foreign policy and war-time powers, that we forget the limited role the president is actually supposed to play in the legislative process. President Obama, perhaps based on his background as a constitutional law professor or as a community organizer, and perhaps based on his natural inclinations, is not going to be the decision-maker on issues that are supposed to be decided by Congress. While he has a definite agenda, and has made very clear proposals to Congress on energy legislation, financial reform legislation, and health care legislation, he is leaving it to Congress to work out the details in a way that can get the legislation passed. He is not going to tell Congress how to resolve issues within the broad framework of the bill, though he is certainly not shy about giving his opinions.

So, as President Obama made clear at his press conference last night, he is happy to weigh in with his ideas on such sticking points as how to fund health care reform, and he still thinks his idea of limiting the tax deductibility of health insurance benefits is the best way to do it, but if Congress wants to come up with a different way of funding the bill that the President can still support, he will sign Congress's bill. Congress is just going to have to get used to the idea that it is the original source of power in the legislative area under our Constitution, and our Representatives and Senators are going to have to stop whining and do their jobs.

Monday, July 20, 2009


Senator Jim DeMint said the other day that if the Republicans are able to stop the passage of health care reform in Congress, it will be Obama's Waterloo. "It will break him." Of course there is a natural desire on the part of the opposition to resist the administration's agenda, and much of this desire can be attributed to good faith policy disagreements.

But I am wondering why the Republicans think that stopping health care reform in particular is a good electoral strategy for them. If they succeed, what are they going to say in next year's Congressional election campaigns: "Vote Republican. We stopped health care reform, so Americans can continue to enjoy the health care system that they have"? The trouble with that message is that most Americans don't seem all that happy with the health care system that we have. If, on the other hand, Republicans have defined the health care battle as Waterloo, and Republicans fail in stopping health care reform, then maybe it is going to be the Republicans' Waterloo.

The ironic part is that President Obama never tried to make the health care debate into a battle. The President from the beginning offered the other side the full opportunity to participate in the process, and has already compromised his position (some would say too much) so that the resulting reform aims to satisfy all legitimate interests. It is the opposition that has defined the process as a battle which will have winners and losers. By raising the stakes, they seem to increased the chances that they will be the losers regardless of whether or not significant health insurance reform is enacted this year.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

What's Your Plan?

It's great to see the President all fired up and back on the campaign trail, doing what he does best. Here he is in New Jersey, pumping up the crowd for Jon Corzine.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

We're in the Money!

Goldman Sachs reported record profits for the quarter, and for some strange reason, a lot of people seem to be grumpy about that. Some on the right are annoyed that the government bailout appears to be working. Some on the left are annoyed that Wall Street fat cats are getting rich again, instead of being punished. (I'm referring in particular to a piece by Arianna Huffington in which she talks about her partners in misery at this news, namely the Wall Street Journal editorial page.)

I think we should all be dancing in the streets and patting ourselves on the back, that capitalism has once again been saved by timely government intervention. What was the alternative? Would it have been better if Goldman Sachs and other banks were losing money? Would we really rather go back to the situation we were in at the end of last year when credit markets were frozen, and we thought all of our financial institutions might go down the tubes? Isn't it a good thing that the Dow is headed up instead of down, and our retirement accounts are starting to replenish their losses? Shouldn't we be relieved that taxpayers are being repaid with interest for our investment?

It seems that people of all ideological predelictions are so preoccupied with wanting to punish the wrongdoers, or prove their political points, that they almost would have preferred failure to success. I thought the whole point of the actions of the Fed and the Treasury and the Congress since last September, was to avert a financial meltdown. When your ship is sinking, you first have to bail it out, get it sailing again, and then worry about repairs to prevent a similar accident in the future. In other words, we had to save Wall Street before we can reform it. We should be very pleased with our success so far.

(illustration of the Monopoly man from Hasbro Inc.)

White House White Sox fan

I want to start a debate over who has the better fastball, George W. Bush or Barack Obama, and whether it is better for the country to have a President who is a White Sox or a Texas Rangers fan. Speaking as one who lived on the South Side of Chicago for four years, I have to say I am partial to the guy in the Sox jacket.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Future of Journalism

I came across an interesting post by Felix Salmon on the differences between traditional journalism and blogging. It takes the form of pointers for journalists aspiring to become bloggers, and includes lots of tips for successful blogging. This made me think of the legions of reporters from the old media, like Rick Redfern from Doonesbury, trying to adapt themselves to the new.

Like a lot of people, I worry about the death of newspapers, but maybe that is just because I enjoy the ritual of reading the paper with my morning coffee; a habit I would be reluctant to give up after many years. I probably should not worry about the decline of the physical paper (in fact I should probably be happy to save trees); but I think I am right to worry about the future of journalism in general. I don't think the personal ramblings of part-time or even full time bloggers can substitute for the old-fashioned research and investigation necessary to dig out the facts behind a story. I don't presume to journalism on this site; I'm just a hobbyist with a point of view who enjoys writing about current events. I don't have the time or resources to gather the news. I'm just trying to start a conversation.

For example, I was thinking of writing something about this incident in Philadelphia of the private swimming pool kicking out the group of mostly black day campers. But I decided not to because I think what is really needed is for some smart reporter to interview all of the relevant parties and do an extended piece on what is really going on there. It doesn't really matter whether that kind of reporting shows up on tv or radio or a magazine or newspaper, or on the internet. What matters is that somebody takes the time and effort to do some thorough interviews. I would bet that it is a lot more complicated and interesting a story than has appeared so far on any news outlet. If I were to write about it, I would probably just say that. (Hey, I just did!)

The internet is a great source of news, but most of it just feeds off the reports of real journalists. We need to find a way to support the reporters who do the hard work that goes into digging out and writing the news stories that all of the media, including humble blogs like this one, find vital.

The irony is that we are still devoting plenty of resources to all kinds of media. I once visited a local morning news show, and was amazed at how many people it takes to put on a show like that, while at the same time just how few of those people are in any way involved in gathering real news. News organizations in general, especially television, spend plenty of money, but almost all of that money goes into paying the salaries of high priced news anchors, or paying for the production staff and all the fancy equipment. Very little money goes to supporting the kind of reporters who do the legwork necessary to get the full story, because what attracts the most viewers is not the content, but the manner of delivery of the news. We ought to be able to find a way to charge everybody who is either packaging or reading or watching the news so as to pay for the reporters we all desperately need to get the story. But nobody seems to have found a solution to this problem yet.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

A Position to Aspire To

Less than six months into his term, Barack Obama's face, or at least part of his face, has already appeared briefly on Mount Rushmore, courtesy of Greenpeace. Evidently the Park Service did not feel this was an appropriate place for the group to exercise its First Amendment rights, for the banner only hung for about an hour.

It is interesting that people who feel strongly about this cause--or any cause, really--often see a dichotomy between leadership and politics. Perhaps that is because they see the issue as so urgent and so important, that it seems to admit of no compromise. It's also interesting that Greenpeace's banner suggests that these four former presidents are leaders, not politicians. For the truth is that Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln were all consummate politicians, as well as visionary leaders. Lincoln, for example, was careful not to take too strong a position against slavery until the country was ready for that change. Barack Obama is also a master of the art of the possible, and because of that, he has already been able to move forward significantly on environmental issues, though not as far or as fast as advocates such as Greenpeace would prefer.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Hope in Ghana

President Obama's choice of Ghana for the site of his first Presidential visit to sub-Saharan Africa is expressly meant as an incentive to encourage other governments to embrace values this administration is trying to promote around the world. The president is of course well aware of the interest other countries' citizens have in his election, and knows the prestige and legitimacy his visits can confer on the hosting country. Hosting Obama seems a little like hosting an international sporting event, or rock concert, or diplomatic conference.

Going to Ghana may be seen as a slap in the face to Kenya, where many of Obama's relatives live, or other more economically more important countries in Africa, as it is a reward for Ghana's ability to conduct a close election peacefully and lawfully. President Obama made clear in an interview with the Ghanaian Chronicle, that his visit is intended to "highlight the effective governance that they have in place" in that country, and to promote the rule of law, transparency in government, and strong efforts to defeat corruption. The chance to host a future presidential visit might not provide a strong incentive to other governments to clean up their acts, but such an incentive can't hurt.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy Fourth of July!

Three cheers for the good old US of A. Today I offer a salute to three Republicans. First, here's to Sarah Palin, for her revolutionary new take on Vince Lombardi's famous saying "winners never quit, and quitters never win." She actually said on Friday that finishing the job she was elected to do would be the quitter's way out: "[I]t may be tempting and more comfortable to just keep your head down, plod along, and appease those who demand: 'Sit down and shut up,' but that's the worthless, easy path; that's a quitter's way out. And a problem in our country today is apathy. It would be apathetic to just hunker down and 'go with the flow.'" But quitting your job, according to Sarah, is not the quitter's way out.

And a shout out to Senator Charles Grassley, who told one of his constituents that if he wants a health insurance package similar to the senator's, he should get a job with the federal government. So much for the superiority of the private sector that Republicans are always talking about. I look forward to the introduction of Senator Grassley's health insurance reform bill, whereby any American who needs decent health insurance will be offered a job with the federal government.

Finally, for former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who I understand is worried that President Obama is trying to do too much, watch this:

Yes we can!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

We're each only about $650 short.

A lot of the reports about California's budget crisis make it seem as though the state is flat on its back and we are simply broke. A lot of public opinion reflects this view, for example a letter to the editor I read this morning, stating that "the taxpayers of California have simply run out of money and can't afford the likes of unsustainable government pensions and wasteful social programs." The fact is, however, that we have not "run out of money." When you do the math and divide the approximately $24 billion that the state is short by approximately 36 million Californians, you find out that we are actually only short about $650 each. Yes, that might be more than $2000 per family, a considerable sum for a lot of people, even an impossible sum for millions of people, but a manageable amount for a lot of others, and a trivial amount for quite a few people. Certainly, not all of us are broke.

Furthermore, when you actually do the math, you find that to close a $24 billion budget gap without raising taxes, drastic cuts in services would be required. But relatively modest tax increases make it a much easier job. Here for example is a tool the LA Times put out to allow you to fiddle with the budget deficit yourself. This forces anyone trying it to decide whether to shorten the school year, or close the state parks, or parole a lot of prisoners, and a whole lot of other things that might need to be cut to close the budget gap. Performing this exercise should help people discover that any fair attempt to solve the problem by relying solely on spending cuts would cost many people much more than their $650 share of the budget deficit. For example, a state employee who must be fired to help meet budget might bear 50 times their fair share of the state's fiscal shortfall. A community college student may be asked to pay more than their $650 share of the budget shortfall just to stay in school. So anyone who says the state should not raise their taxes by even another dollar is really saying that state employees and those who benefit from state services (which actually is all of us) should accept all of the sacrifice, but taxpayers should accept none.

A reasonable combination of tax increases and budget cuts could solve the state's budget problem in a still painful but more fair way, but the State Legislature is unable to agree on any kind of reasonable combination because the minority has the power to prevent that. The majority is being asked to bend to the minority's will, and is understandably frustrated at being asked to do that, particularly since the pain of relying solely on budget cuts will be so severe, while the pain of relying in part on tax increases should be more manageable. In short, although there is no free way to solve this budget problem, no one should be under the illusion that it is an unsolveable problem, or that we Californians, taken as a group of 36 million people, are simply too broke to solve it. We're not.

(Chart from the Ojai Post)