Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Blogroll please...

Our newest blogbrother...Tantrums of a Restless Mind...welcome!

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Setting the Record Straight

To those of you who have been directed to this blog by way of the Newsweek piece I'd like to clarify a few details:

I spoke with David Remnick last summer during a 30-minute phone call about a gathering at the Ayers/Dohrn home in 1995. It appears that Mr. Remnick conflated two different events, one of which I did not attend. The get-together I attended occurred long after the one where Alice Palmer introduced Obama to the movers and shakers of Hyde Park. Alice Palmer was not at the event I attended. By the time I met Barack and Michelle Obama, he'd already had a major falling out with Palmer over backing away from his assurances to her that he would step out of the race for her seat should she want to keep it.

The irony here is that while Obama and Ayers were closer than either one of them has admitted, Obama's politics then and now have always been centrist. During the presidential campaign, however, the demagoguing from Palin and the Right along with the opportunistic left-baiting by Ben Smith at Politico about the Ayers connection served only to obscure the way this event underscored what others have said about Obama's early success, namely, his ability to appear to be all things to all people.

Labor Board Appointee

From the letter's section of yesterday's NYTimes

To the Editor:

Business groups fear that the appointment of Craig Becker, a lawyer for the A.F.L.-C.I.O., to the National Labor Relations Board will promote unionism (“Deadlock Is Ending on Labor Board,” Business Day, April 1).

But that is the precise purpose of the Wagner Act of 1935. Section 1 declares that it is “the policy of the United States” to encourage “the practice and procedure of collective bargaining.” It notes that “inequality of bargaining power” aggravates “recurrent business depressions.” Both the policy and its rationale have been ignored for too long.

Judith Stein
New York, April 1, 2010

The writer is a professor of history at the Graduate Center and City College, CUNY.

ht alr

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Hoping for a Hurricane

In the hoopla surrounding last week’s State of the Union, we should not overlook the double dose of Duncan—Arne that is—served up in the New Yorker and The Washington Post. Carlo Rotella’s profile of Obama’s Secretary of Education in the New Yorker (the full online article is available only to subscribers, alas), describes Duncan as “firmly on the market-forces side” of the debate on how to improve public education. Rotella observes that while Duncan tries to play both ends against the middle, he pretty much comes down on the side of the fence that makes him a darling to conservatives.:
Duncan must contend with critics on the right who don’t accept the federal government’s active role in education and those on the left who see him as a neoliberal enforcer, exploiting Obama’s Democratic bona fides to impose the free-market reform agenda on the unions. And yet Duncan believes that “a perfect storm for reform”—a heightened awareness of global competition, agreement that there is a crisis, plus desperation in near-broke states—will allow him to push his program through.
Turns out, that when Duncan says, a “perfect storm” provides an ideal environment for reforming education, he’s not just speaking metaphorically. Commenting last week on reform efforts in New Orleans, Duncan said,
I spent a lot of time in New Orleans, and this is a tough thing to say, but let me be really honest. I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster, and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that 'we have to do better.' And the progress that they've made in four years since the hurricane is unbelievable. They have a chance to create a phenomenal school district. Long way to go, but that -- that city was not serious about its education. Those children were being desperately underserved prior, and the amount of progress and the amount of reform we've seen in a short amount of time has been absolutely amazing."
This is reprehensible.

Sure, Duncan is right in saying that school children in New Orleans were “desperately underserved.” But behind the disastrous state of public education in pre-Katrina New Orleans, or in any pre-economic collapse urban school system, was chronic underfunding and neglect verging on the criminal, the right’s resolute commitment to demonizing the public sector, and the unmitigated assault on the poor that is neoliberalism. The result has been to run these systems into the ground but to chalk up their failures to technical obsolescence and union intransigence both of which are presumed to derive from public schooling’s insulation from the “salutary” effect of market forces.

In the wake of this manufactured disaster, free-market compatible reforms can’t help but offer “some” improvement over what previously existed, and because reformers refuse to support with sufficient funding any models that don’t incorporate their key measures (on the assumption that other alternatives have already been tried and found wanting), they pretty much have a free hand to do what they want to do.

There’s no doubting Duncan’s sincerity in wanting to improve education for all students. But the issue here is not his sincerity. For the past quarter century the notion of commonsense coming from the right—to which the Democrats, if not much of the left, have acquiesced—is that public sector spending is out of control. Any discussion about improving public services starts with reining in costs, as illustrated by the Obama administration’s approach to healthcare.

With cost-cutting as square one, the rest of the game becomes a matter of improving what Stanford economist and Hoover Institution Fellow, Caroline Hoxby (a proponent of free-market methods in education) terms “productivity,” which is a measure of outcomes, say test scores, against input (per pupil expenditures). On this scale it counts as a plus for charters and other alternatives not only if their students actually do better than students in traditional schools, but also if they do roughly the same for less money.

Given the prevailing commonsense and the straitened circumstances of state governments, what we’re likely to see as education reform going forward is modest improvements in educational achievement as measured by test scores, coupled with flat or slightly decreased state-level expenditures for public education. Underwriting any educational cost control will be growing precariousness in the situation of teachers, with higher rewards for entrepreneurial types at the top, and increased scrutiny for those struggling in difficult circumstances.

Particularly pernicious is that Duncan and Co. will represent the current discussion as a truly open consideration of all viable approaches to education, never acknowledging that what has undermined those measures we know produce better teaching and learning environments--smaller class sizes, better school facilities, overall increases in teacher pay, and instruction in the arts--is an unwillingness to start from the position that we need to fund education at all levels more generously and more equitably than we have ever done.

Friday, January 29, 2010

In answer to your question, Mr. President

From the letters section in today's NYTimes:

To the Editor:

President Obama’s State of the Union address had a high point when he pledged that anyone with a “better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors, and stop insurance company abuses, let me know.”

Thank you, Mr. President. The answer is the reform supported by 65 percent of the public and even 59 percent of physicians. It’s remarkably simple, and the nation has already had 44 years of successful experience with it in financing health care for our elderly and the totally disabled.

It is, of course, Medicare-for-all, single-payer, not-for-profit national health insurance. Its superiority lies in excluding profit-seeking insurance companies and Big Pharma from controlling and undermining our health system. This is your answer, Mr. President.

Quentin Young
Chicago, Jan. 28, 2010

The writer, a doctor, is national coordinator of Physicians for a National Health Program.

Good answer.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

What A Speech!

A State of the Union with so many highlights: What about that moment when Obama announced he was issuing an executive order suspending healthcare benefits for all members of Congress until they brought him a bill that provided full healthcare for all US residents, and then we all looked at each other and said,” Can he do that? Woo Hoo BHO!”

And then, the way he followed that by announcing he was cutting congressional pay by a third until they passed a full employment act?

Oh, and what about how he blistered the illogic of Chief Justice Robert’s concurring opinion in the Citizen’s United Case. Spake the President: “Our august Chief Justice has put the rule of law in jeopardy. In one breath he says that controversial decisions reached over spirited dissents ‘undermine the precedent’s ability to contribute to the stable and orderly development of the law.’ Then, in the next he affirms a narrow 5-4 decision over spirited dissent. He presides over a Court that is defined by narrow 5-4 rulings. We must abolish lifetime tenure for Supreme Court justices, appointing them instead to 12-year staggered terms. Lifetime tenure was intended to shield the Court from political pressures. It now serves the opposite purpose, emboldening justices to seek narrow rulings whose legitimacy depends only on the ability to hold a majority. Justices now hang on their seats—unless the will of god deems otherwise—and step down only when it allows a President of their party can make a new appointment. By contrast, knowing that the make-up of the court will be changing will encourage the court to seek rulings defined by broad consensus.”

Then there was the timetable for nationalizing the banks.

And then—Red Rabbit elbowed me and told me I was talking in my sleep.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Haiti and the US Military

Any criticism of relief efforts in face of a disaster as unfathomable as the earthquake in Haiti requires caution. Indeed, some aid groups have said the challenges in Haiti are greater than those that followed in the wake of the 2004 Asian tsunami. Nonetheless a couple of observations might be in order: We know that immediately following the earthquake the US military assumed the lead role in directing search, rescue, and relief efforts. We also know that various aid organizations, most prominently Doctors Without Borders, reported difficulties and delays getting their people, equipment, and supplies into the country.

There’s no reason to assume the US military was trying to stall or derail efforts to aid the Haitians. On the contrary, the Armed Forces seemed to be trying to do the best job they could.

The problem though, is that when the US military assumes authority over a situation, Job One will be that of providing “security.” The idea of allowing aid workers or doctors into areas before you’ve figured out how to get your troops there becomes unthinkable or irresponsible. In discussing what to do, the counsel of experienced aid providers will not avail against US commanders’ assessment of what needs to be done.

The militarization of authority in times of disaster was also the story of Katrina, but a story obscured by the unbridled cronyism, gross incompetence, and colossal disdain for governance of the Bush Administration. In the years after 9/11 FEMA had been folded into Homeland Security with the result that all disasters or circumstances of extreme distress become immediately matters of security subject to military rather than civilian authority, despite the fact that Homeland Security is a civilian agency. As the Homeland Security website affirms, “While the Department was created to secure our country against those who seek to disrupt the American way of life, our charter also includes preparation for and response to all hazards and disasters.”

What these recent responses to disasters reveal is how severely the idea and prestige of civilian authority has been eroded over the past two decades. Bush regularly misstated that his oath of office bound him to defend the nation (and not the US Constitution), an error that Obama compounded in his acceptance speech for his Nobel Peace Prize when he described himself as a “head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation.”

Interestingly, in that speech Obama paid lip service to the idea that security doesn't begin with boots on the ground, acknowledging that "security does not exist where human beings do not have access to enough food, or clean water, or the medicine they need to survive. It does not exist where children cannot aspire to a decent education or a job that supports a family. The absence of hope can rot a society from within."

But what he asserted in one breath he retracted in the next when he defined the threat of global climate change in terms that extolled military leadership: "it is not merely scientists and activists who call for swift and forceful action -- it is military leaders in my country and others who understand that our common security hangs in the balance."

The point to be made here is that our well being demands that military power and interest always be subordinated to civil authority and that we should not need to justify the measures we think best by first determining whether or not they accord with the military’s security protocols.*

It will take some effort to restore the idea that security does not precede, but follows from, meeting the material, emotional, and social needs of people, both in times of acute distress and as a matter of course, but it's necessary that we do so. Perhaps a handful of those Haitians who survived the quake but perished because search and rescue teams hadn’t reached them three or four days later, or because their injuries weren’t attended to in a more timely fashion, might be alive today if US military security had not been the default posture after the quake. But as I said at the outset, one has to be careful here, because the challenges of delivering aid after such a disaster mean such tragedies will occur despite the best efforts of would-be rescuers. The real point here is that we should not allow the exigencies of disasters and extreme situations to undermine further the principle that the military serves us and not the other way around.

*Perhaps not so coincidentally last week an NPR report on the conditions in Haiti was followed immediately by a story about a lawsuit being brought by New York Public school students against the NYPD, alleging abuse by officers as they carried out what is now a standard use of police in public schools. According to the report: "School safety used to be handled by the city's school system, but in 1998 it was transferred over to the police department. There are now more than 5,000 unarmed safety agents assigned to the city's 1,500 schools, plus another 200 police officers. And metal detectors are routinely deployed in high schools."

As someone who served on a school council in Chicago in the wake of the Columbine shootings, I can testify from experience how difficult it has become to insist that the demands of some other principle, say, education, supersede those of security, when the guys with the guns are insisting they know best.

Monday, January 18, 2010

How Low Can He Go?: David Brooks on Haiti

David Brooks's Friday column on the Haiti earthquake counts as his most reprehensible in recent memory, if not ever. On the strength of apparently having read one book and an essay on Haiti he feels licensed to charge millions of Haitian parents with systematically neglecting and then abusing their children. As bad is this is, the particulars are less important than what drives this sort of analysis—if one can call it that--which is Brooks’s commitment to a culturalist line that runs through all of his commentary and is itself is driven by a fundamental belief that poverty and economic inequality are never the causes of social ills but merely symptoms of deep-seated cultural or behavioral problems.

Despite all of his handwringing and reflective posturing, the bottom line for him is always the bottom line: Any proposal or policy that involves (or that could even open the door to) transferring wealth from those who have squirreled away an obscenely disproportionate amount of the world’s resources and goods to the world’s impoverished will receive strict scrutiny from Brooks and found wanting in one way or another. To give you an idea of the current state of affairs, the editor of the Left Business Observer reports that the Goldman Sachs bonus pool is approximately $20b while Haiti’s annual GDP is approximately $7b.

Of course, what burns me up is less Brooks himself than the “pass” he gets from many liberal types on the basis of having a Times column and being a regular on public television when his substantive politics are Fox News fare, minus the obvious demagoguery around issues like abortion, etc, and leavened by the fact that he’s got a reading list that overlaps with many of us in the educated classes. I could go on and on about what this says about the center of gravity of what purports to be progressive political discourse at the moment, but I’ll spare you that for now.