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Good News, Bad News July 15, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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Kevin Drum is right on point, so I will let him speak for me today:

I’ve got some good news and some bad news for you today:

A broad overhaul of the nation’s financial regulatory system, intended to address the causes of the 2008 economic crisis and rewrite the rules for a more complex — and mistrustful — era on Wall Street, cleared one last procedural hurdle in the Senate on Thursday as it headed for final Congressional approval later in the day.

….With the Senate poised to send the bill to President Obama for his signature, the White House was already planning a ceremony — sometime next week — to mark completion of another landmark piece of legislation, following the enactment of the historic health care bill in March and last year’s major economic stimulus program.

Here’s the good news: this record of progressive accomplishment officially makes Obama the most successful domestic Democratic president of the last 40 years. And here’s the bad news: this shoddy collection of centrist, watered down, corporatist sellout legislation was all it took to make Obama the most successful domestic Democratic president of the last 40 years. Take your pick.

In any case, I think this probably marks the end of Obama’s major legislative agenda. I don’t give Congress much chance of passing a climate bill, and after the midterms the Democratic majority will either be gone or significantly reduced, making large-scale legislation just about impossible.

Still, if you’re a liberal, this is the best you’ve had it for a very long time. Whether this is cause for cheer or cause for discouragement is, I suspect, less a reflection on Obama than it is on America writ large.

Say what you will about Obama’s political strategies, he and the Democrats have indeed accomplished a lot. The fact that the American public disapproves of these accomplishments and is ready to throw the Democrats out of power, bringing back the minions of George Bush, tells us a lot more about the American people than it does about Obama.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com


Blaming Obama May 31, 2010

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Two weeks ago, the  mainstream media meme was that the oil spill in the gulf was Obama’s Katrina. But that never made any sense. As Kevin Drum wrote:

Katrina was a case of a disaster that the federal government is specifically tasked with handling. And for most of the 90s, it was very good at handling them. But when George Bush became president and Joe Allbaugh became director of FEMA, everything changed. Allbaugh neither knew nor cared about disaster preparedness. FEMA was downsized and much of its work outsourced. When Allbaugh left after less than two years on the job, he was replaced by the hapless Michael Brown and the agency was downgraded and broken up yet again. By the time Katrina hit, the upper levels of FEMA were populated largely with political appointees with no disaster preparedness experience and the agency was simply not up to the job of dealing with a huge storm anymore.

The Deepwater Horizon explosion is almost the exact opposite. There is no federal expertise in capping oil blowouts. There is no federal agency tasked with repairing oil spills. There is no expectation that the federal government should be able to respond instantly to a disaster like this. There never has been. For better or worse, it’s simply not something that’s ever been considered the responsibility of the federal government.

In the case of Katrina, you have the kind of disaster that, contra Levin, can be addressed by the federal government. In the case of the BP spill, we’re faced with a technological challenge that can’t be. They could hardly be more different.

But there is one way in which they’re similar. Katrina was far worse than it had to be because a conservative administration, one that fundamentally disdained the mechanics of government for ideological reasons, decided that FEMA wasn’t very important. Likewise, the BP blowout was made more likely because that same administration decided that government regulation of private industry wasn’t very important and turned the relevant agency into a joke. If you believe that government is the problem, not the solution, and if you actually run the country that way for eight years, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But let’s not pretend it’s inevitable.

Last week, the mainstream media meme was that the oil spill in the gulf shows the incompetence of government. George Will opined that President Obama “is being unfairly blamed” for its oil spill response but “ it sort of serves him right”. Obama  promised that the government could solve problems but we now know that isn’t true since the government can’t plug an oil leak a mile beneath the surface of the ocean. I guess we should just leave our problems to private enterprises like British Petroleum to solve.

This week, apparently, the meme will be that there isn’t much anyone can do to plug the oil leak but Obama must do a better job of feeling our pain. Over the weekend, the intellectual giant Maureen Dowd took time away from her Sex in the City reruns to give Obama some advice:

For five weeks, it looked as though Obama considered the gushing that became the worst oil spill in U.S. history a distraction, like a fire alarm going off in the middle of a law seminar he was teaching. He’ll deal with it, but he’s annoyed because it’s not on his syllabus.

Even if Obama doesn’t watch “Treme” on HBO, it’s strange that he would not have a more spontaneous emotional response to another horrendous hit for Louisiana, with residents and lawmakers crying on the news and dead pelicans washing up on shore.

Steve Benen is not impressed with the discourse thus far:

At this point, the discourse seems to boil down to a) those who want to see the president don a wetsuit and head to the Gulf floor; b) those who want to see the president don a cape and fly around the planet really quickly in order to reverse time; and c) those who want to see the president pound on podiums and lose his cool, as if that would make a difference. (Thanks, Maureen Dowd, for comparing Obama to Spock again. That never gets old.)

Here’s an idea for assignment editors: publish a piece with specific steps federal officials should take but haven’t. Because at this point, unless we can fix the leak with useless media palaver, there’s not much point to the breathless speculation, nebulous criticism, and finger-pointing.

Indeed. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the one mistake Obama has made is to trust any American institution. Wall St., the health insurance lobby, the Pentagon, and big oil have all stuck him with monumental headaches because he wants to meet them halfway. But of course part of the President’s job is to work with American institutions. Trying to govern by making enemies of them would be unlikely to yield much success either.

But one thing the President could do is take this opportunity to condemn the way industry has succeeded in taking over our regulatory agencies  and attack the morons in the Republican Party who want to “drill, baby, drill”.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Will He Fight? January 28, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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I was unfortunately unable to watch Obama’s State of the Union Speech. I will have to watch it tomorrow.

This is a crucial time in his presidency and he needed to be at his best—and the immediate response suggests to be that he was.

But there is a sense in which the speech is inconsequential. I agree with Jonathan Zasloff:

I care what happens over the next few days and weeks.

When the likes of Bayh, Lincoln, Ben Nelson, Landrieu, Holy Joe, and Rahm start saying, “let’s go slow and not try to do too much,” will the President listen to them?

When Congressional leaders ask the President to give them leadership and direction on health care, will he provide it?

When they try to hollow out financial regulation, or destroy the bank tax, will the White House go along?

When Lisa Murkowski tries to attach her egregious rider to an appropriations bill to stop EPA from regulating climate change, will Obama threaten a veto?

When the going gets tough in Washington, will Obama take to the hustings and campaign as if his Presidency and the nation depend upon him winning (because it does)?

Will he fight?

Obama has done a lot of good things—especially the stimulus package which has saved jobs and stabilizing the banking system, which has saved a whole lot of jobs. He has made a few mistakes—but then he has the most difficult job in the world. Who wouldn’t make mistakes?

The question is will he provide the kind of extraordinary leadership we need in this extraordinary time. Or will he succumb to the inside-the-beltway inertia that swallows any good idea and regurgitates it as patronage for oligarchs.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Freeze Frame is Not Right for Dems January 26, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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Obama’s announcement of a spending freeze for discretionary programs was a surprise. Cutting the federal budget during a recession, when unemployment is high, is a really dumb idea.

It turns out that this is not really a spending freeze; it is a budget cap that doesn’t kick in until 2011 and allows the administration considerable flexibility in keeping stimulus and other federal money flowing through the economy. In essence, he is doing what he promised during the campaign—taking a scalpel to programs that don’t work and using those savings to fund programs that do.

Despite some of the apoplectic responses in the left blogosphere, this is not a job killer.

But it is still not a good idea. The Obama Administration is negotiating with itself here. Republicans will not give him credit for any budget reductions.

Obama came into office with the task of changing American’s perceptions of the value of government. Now is the time to convince the American public that government has an important role to play creating jobs when private industry has failed.

Instead, by calling this a “freeze”, which is what the Republicans have been calling for, he has reinforced the failed Republican narrative that government is not part of the solution. This is bad economics; it is disastrous social policy. And it sends the wrong message at the wrong time.

Moreover, his so-called “freeze” does not include military expenditures which are the biggest source of waste and fraud in the budget. If we need to scrutinize individual programs for their effectiveness, why does Defense and Homeland Security escape scrutiny?

The answer is that conservatives would whine if he proposed cuts in these areas.

Obama’s tendency to reinforce right-wing ideas continues to disappoint.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Obama and Race Relations May 31, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
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This recent CBS poll is heartening regarding race relations in the wake of Obama’s election.

Fifty-nine percent of African-Americans – along with 65 percent of whites – now characterize the relationship between blacks and whites in America as “good,” according to a new CBS News/New York Times survey.
Less than a year ago, just 29 percent of blacks said race relations were good. The percentage of blacks who say race relations are bad, meanwhile, has dropped from 59 percent last July to 30 percent today.
Sixty-one percent of blacks say there has been real progress in getting rid of racial discrimination since the 1960s. That’s up from 37 percent in December 1996. Eighty-seven percent of whites say there has been real progress since the 1960s.

So has Obama’s election transformed race relations in the U.S as this recent article in Salon claims?

I suspect it will have some modest positive effect.

Despite Obama’s election, blacks in the U.S are systematically poorer, and have less access to the resources needed to alleviate poverty. Until this changes, I don’t think racial divisions will be healed.

But certainly Obama will inspire many young African-Americans to aim high and perhaps put the lie to many of the negative racial stereotypes that continue to infect racial dialogue in the U.S.


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Tea Party Wrap Up April 16, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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It has been fun watching the teabaggers babbling incoherently  about the commiefascist slave-master Obama.

But let’s get back to the facts. From economist Robert Reich:

  • The tax rates in the U.S. are the lowest of all developed nations.
  • The wealthy are not overtaxed. They pay more taxes than the rest of us because they have vastly higher incomes. In the 1950’s the marginal tax rate for the highest incomes was 91%. Today it is about 38%. Over the past 30 years, the after-tax earnings of highest income brackets rose more than 150%; the after tax earnings of families in the middle rose about 10%.
  • Property, social security, and sales taxes take a far bigger bite out of lower income people than high income people.
  • Obama’s tax proposals will cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans, by about $400 per person a year. Only the top 2% will have a very modest tax increase.
  • Government debt need not cause taxes to dramatically rise in the future. What matters is not total debt but the ratio of government debt to GDP. Reducing debt requires returning to growth.

If the Obama Administration had done what the “teabaggers” apparently want him to do—no bailout, spending freeze, and tax cuts for the wealthy—we would have millions of additional unemployed Americans, more cutbacks in government services, a longer recession, and larger budget deficits.

So why are there tax protests?

The so called “tea parties” were not a grassroots movement. The main impetus behind these protests was provided by Fox News and an organization called FreedomWorks led by former House Majority leader Dick Armey.

Our corporate masters are now hard at work keeping low-information voters focused on the big, bad “guvmint” hoping we won’t notice that they laid a big, fat egg and blocking any reform that helps average citizens.

Apparently, it’s not working. People are relatively satisfied with their income tax level—about 48% believe the amount they pay is “just about right,” and 61% regard the amount of tax they pay as fair.

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Student Loans and the Banks April 13, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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Currently, many students who apply for a student loan are directed to a private lender who loans the student the money and collects the interest. The federal government guarantees the loan, if the student should default, so there is no risk to the private lender. The banking industry is therefore subsidized to provide a service that the government could provide for less. Why is there a middleman in this process? The government could make the loan, with no bank involved, and save billions.

This is precisely what the Obama Administration has proposed—a program to make direct loans to students and bypass the banks.

Predictably, conservatives (both Republicans and Democrats) are up in arms, complaining that it is more “big government”. Apparently, it is OK to waste taxpayer’s money as long as private businesses can benefit.

And of course the banking industry and their lobbyists are hard at work trying to pick off enough Democrats to scuttle this proposal. And they may well succeed.

This is why I argue, in Reviving the Left, that traditional, moderate, middle-of-the road liberalism is complicit in the disasters that conservatism has wrought and must be radically revised. Moderate liberals want to give everyone a seat at the table and coddle every interest group, even when the interest being served is plainly wrong and contrary to the public good.

Why do the bankers have any standing at all to govern the administration of student aid?





Moral Outrage Redux March 23, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics.
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I wrote last week that moral outrage is a cheap emotion—easy to generate but demanding very little from us.

Robert Reich provides the evidence:

In a rare show of bipartisanship, members [of Congress] are eagerly registering shock and outrage at AIG’s bonus payments by coming up with an assortment of ways to reclaim the bonanza…But much of this is for show. When the public isn’t looking, Congress reverts to its old ways. The Obama-supported plan to allow distressed homeowners to renegotiate their mortgages under the protection of bankruptcy has run into a Wall Street wall. Although Citigroup temporarily broke ranks… the rest of Wall Street has remained adamantly opposed, and apparently Democratic leaders have decided not to push back.
Meanwhile, Obama’s plan to limit itemized deductions for the richest 1.2 percent of taxpayers (including the top 1.9 percent of small business owners) to 28 percent, starting in 2011, is also in trouble on the Hill. Wealthy contributors and friends of congressional leaders involved in setting tax policy have balked. So Congress is telling the White House to look elsewhere for the $320 billion it needs over ten years to finance half of the tab for health care reform. Congressional leaders have also informed the White House that they don’t have the votes to pass Obama’s proposal for treating the earnings of hedge-fund and private-equity managers as income rather than capital gains.

The bonuses paid to AIG executives are small potatoes with minimal impact on the public compared to the package of reforms contained in the budget. Yet, when it comes to the stuff that really matters, changes in policy that would make a real difference, Congress will roll over for their Wall St. patrons.

And why are Congress critters so easily bought off? Because they know the public is interested in cheap emotional payoffs and lacks the sustained attention required to follow through on holding their feet to the fire.

Outrage can be readily manufactured when you can point to easily identifiable villains in the spotlight of a media-driven narrative that demands of us only punching the TV remote. It is much more difficult to sustain outrage when knowing who the villains are requires more complex judgments about systematic abuse of power.

World-Destroying Finger Pricks March 18, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Philosophy.
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This  was a minor but quite disturbing development last week that goes to the heart of why our political system does not work.

When President Obama submitted a budget that predicted passage of a revenue-raising climate change bill, hopes rose that Congress could successfully rein in carbon emissions this year.

But a cap-and-trade climate bill is almost certain to be filibustered by Republicans — and in a letter delivered to the Senate Budget Committee yesterday, eight Democratic senators joined 25 Republicans to defend the GOP’s right to set a 60-vote margin for passing emissions limits.
“We oppose using the budget process to expedite passage of climate legislation,” the senators, including eight centrist Democrats, wrote in their missive.

Using the procedure of budget reconciliation, which would allow a climate change measure to become law with 50 votes while preventing filibusters, “would circumvent normal Senate practice and would be inconsistent with the administration’s goals of bipartisanship, cooperation, and openness,” the 33 senators wrote.

Why is this a big deal? I can guarantee these Senators weren’t worried about Senate rules.

A cap-and-trade system of regulating greenhouse gases will increase the price of coal-generated electricity, hitting the South and Midwest especially hard.

The eight Democratic Senators who signed this letter were from states that generate most of their electricity from coal or have significant coal-mining industries. (The signees were Robert Byrd (WV), Blanche Lincoln (AR), Ben Nelson (NE), Evan Bayh (IN), Mark Pryor (AR), Bob Casey (PA), Carl Levin (MI), and Mary Landrieu (LA).)

The fact that greenhouse gases from burning coal (among other fossil fuels) threatens human life on this planet seems not to have been a main consideration.

David Hume famously said “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” Hume meant that it was the passions, not reason, that drove us to care about others.

Apparently these Senators prefer the destruction of the whole world to inconveniencing their main campaign donors. (It would of course be irrational to piss off campaign donors.) For Republicans and centrist Democrats, politics is not about taking responsibility for the welfare of the country, although they never hesitate to wave the flag. Its about protecting their little piece of turf.

Events like this convince me that our biggest problem is a deficit of care.

Conscience Regulation Unconscionable March 1, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics.
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On Friday, Obama rescinded a last minute Bush Administration rule which gave legal protection to health workers who do not want to perform or assist with abortions, sterilizations, or other procedures they find morally objectionable. Dubbed the “provider conscience regulation”, the rule was breath-takingly broad in scope. Opponents argued that it would void state laws that require insurance plans to cover contraceptives and require hospitals to offer emergency contraception to rape victims; and would allow drugstore employees to refuse to fill prescriptions for contraceptives.

Should health-care workers be forced to perform tasks for which they have moral objections?

The most troubling consequence of allowing health-care workers (including pharmacists) to refuse to treat patients on moral grounds is that in rural areas of the country patients often have very limited options. If the sole pharmacist in your small town refuses to provide contraceptives, you will be out of luck.

In most situations, there are informal ways of handling moral objections. In most cases, I imagine hospital administrators and other supervisors will arrange to have abortions performed only by surgeons with no moral objections to the procedure. By contrast, it is likely that in conservative rural areas health-care providers would come under enormous pressure from local churches and opponents of abortion to stop providing abortions, contraceptives and information on reproductive rights. Again, the victims of the policy would have no recourse.

Carried to its logical conclusion, a general conscience exception for workers would lead to all sorts of absurdities. Should vegetarian truck drivers be able to refuse to deliver meat products to the supermarket? Should employees of pharmaceutical companies be legally permitted to refuse to work on the production line when drugs they oppose are being manufactured?

But beyond the empirical issues, there is an important conceptual issue at stake. Professionals have a duty to the people they serve. In most professional relationships—especially the doctor/patient relationship—there is a power asymmetry. The patient goes to the doctor for help and the doctor uses her authority to persuade the patient to take care of her health issue. Patients tend to believe what doctors say; their words have authority.

If a doctor tells a women (especially a very young woman) seeking an abortion that she would be committing murder, the patient is being coerced by the doctor to believe it. Refusing to perform an abortion may be an act of conscience, but encouraging a patient not to have one (assuming the procedure would be medically justified) is an attempt at coercive persuasion as well. The professional duty of a physician is to give medical advice, not moral advice.

Doctors must take up the needs of their patients, and up to a point this means subordinating their own values to that end. If they cannot do that, they belong in another line of work.