Archive for the ‘Current Affairs’ Category

A few thoughts on foreign policy

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

Foreign policy has suddenly become part of the political discussion again, and I wanted to spend a few minutes mulling over the Obama administration’s foreign policy.   There’s not a clear “Obama doctrine” — but Romney has also been pretty vague about what exactly he would have done differently, other than suck up to Netanyahu more..

In a lot of ways, it’s easier to describe what the Obama foreign policy has NOT been:

  • It’s not isolationist.  To the frustration of some of the peace-left movement, as well as the Ron Paul fans, there has not been a significant withdrawal from military involvement overseas.
  • It’s not the “America as the sheriff of the world”  aggressive interventions of the Bush era.
  • But in the places where we have taken action (Afghanistan, Pakistan, to some extent Libya), it has not been as deferential to local governments and the international community as might have been expected based on some of the things that candidate Obama said

I liked Kevin Drum’s piece today, about David Frum’s criticism of Obama for being too soft on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

He writes:

Conservatives too often assume that American power can accomplish anything we set our minds to. But it’s not so. Sometimes there just aren’t any good options, and the best path forward is to ride out the storm and refrain from doing anything foolish. It’s not very satisfying at a gut level, but nine times out of ten it’s the best you can do.

Frum may disagree, but if he does I’d sure like to hear his side of the argument. What exactly is the more tough-minded policy that he thinks would have produced a better result?

If Romney has made a coherent argument for what he’d have done differently. I haven’t heard it.  Here’s what his website says about the Middle East.  If anyone reading this can explain to me how what he says he would do about the Arab Spring  countries or Syria is substantively different from what Obama is doing, I’d love to read it.

And here’ s the page on Afghanistan and Pakistan: “Mitt Romney will work with both the Afghan government and Pakistan to ensure that those nations are fully contributing to success in Afghanistan”  Um, how?  That’s a goal, not a strategy.




the welfare waiver controversy

Sunday, September 2nd, 2012

This started out as a Facebook response to some of my friends, but got long enough that I decided I should just post it here.

I’m going to write about the welfare ads that the Romney campaign has been running ads about, and particularly the claim that “Obama gutted the work requirements.”   Let me start by noting that I’ve spent the past 16 years of my life working on TANF and related programs, 10 years as a civil service (non-political) employee of the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, and the past 6 for an advocacy organization.

Having said that, let me add the disclaimer that I’m writing this as an individual, not representing my organization.  If you want to read what I wrote about the waivers in my work capacity, it’s at:

I’m writing this on my own time, on my own computer, on my own blog.  And while I know many of the people at HHS (both career employees and political appointees) who work on this issue, I did not know of the policy before it was announced to the public, and I haven’t had conversations with them about their motivations since.

So, what did the Administration do that Romney is claiming “gutted” welfare?  They issued a memorandum to states, which you can read for yourself,  “to notify states of the Secretary’s willingness to exercise her waiver authority under section 1115 of the Social Security Act to allow states to test alternative and innovative strategies, policies, and procedures that are designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families.”

There are two different questions which are both in play: a) does the Administration have the legal authority to grant waivers of the work participation rates under TANF? and b) is proposing to grant such waivers, “gutting” or “undoing” welfare reform?

On the first question, I think the answer is yes, but I will accept that this is a point on which rational people can reasonably disagree.*   It’s fair to say that the Clinton Administration did not think that they had the legal authority to do this, but they also had a strong political interest in being able to say to liberals “we don’t have the authority to give waivers” rather than “we choose not to” so I don’t think they looked hard for the legal arguments to support waivers.  It’s also fair to say that the Republicans in Congress who are most outraged by this have accepted similar legal stretches under R administrations.

Moving to the substantive question, the memo says  very explicitly that states can get waivers in order to test whether there are better ways to get people to work.  The current work participation rate is a truly lousy measure — all it does is look at whether someone put their behind in a seat for the required number of hours a day, not whether the program did any good at helping them get jobs.  And states spend an enormous amount of time and effort documenting these hours of participation, which is just not a good use of the limited resources (e.g. taxpayer money) available for this purpose.   It is 100% true that governors — including Mitt Romney when he was Governor of MA — have been asking for this kind of flexibility for years.

Moreover, the proposal for waivers came with a very large string attached — states who get waivers are going to have to do random assignment evaluations to see if their programs are actually working better than the status quo.  And, unlike in the pre-welfare reform waiver period, the federal government isn’t going to put up any new money to support the evaluations.  So a state that does this has to be really convinced that it’s got a better way to do things, and be willing to tested.  This is NOT the easy way out.

I sincerely think that the folks at HHS thought that they had written this memo carefully enough, with a strong enough emphasis on work, that it wouldn’t be controversial.  With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that they were wrong, but I think this was a misjudgement not a strategy.  The idea that Obama did this for political advantage is truly crazy — if the Heritage Foundation and the Romney campaign hadn’t taken this on, I don’t think there would be more than a couple of hundred people in the entire country who would have noticed that this memo was issued, and I would be shocked if it changed the vote of a single one.

But Heritage jumped on the waiver memo as soon as it was released with screaming rhetoric about undoing welfare reform.  This is their way of doing things — they made similarly outrageous claims about the Emergency Fund that was part of the Recovery Act.  I don’t think there’s ANYTHING that the Obama Administration could do on welfare that Heritage wouldn’t immediately jump on.  And I’m personally convinced that the Romney campaign picked up the Heritage rhetoric without actually reading the memo or having the foggiest idea what it was actually about.  What’s sad is that they’re not backing down in the face of widespread coverage of the falsity of the claim because it’s a political winner.   One of the most frustrating parts of this whole discussion is that it’s shown how little the public understands how much welfare has changed since 1996 — how hard it is to get benefits in most states, that there are work requirements, that there are time limits.



in which I despair over American politics

Monday, March 28th, 2011

Today I sent an email to my colleagues in which I said that the more optimistic newspaper reports suggest that we’re heading for a government shutdown, while the more pessimistic ones suggest that the Democrats will just cave completely.

The Republicans in Congress are proposing deep cuts in core services, and the Democrats seem to be meeting them half way.   The deficit commission itself included in its core principles that we should not balance the budget on the back of the most vulnerable, and that we shouldn’t cut so quickly that we put the recovery at risk.  They suggested that we should start stabilizing spending in 2012,  and yet we’re slashing services in this year’s budget, with the year half way gone.  I’m increasingly convinced that  for a significant part of the Republican party in Congress, cutting social safety nets is a goal in itself, not a means to the end of cutting deficits. And if given the choice between cutting taxes and cutting deficits, they’ll choose cutting taxes every time. Meanwhile, the Democrats take the rhetoric about deficit cutting and shared sacrifice seriously, and go after their own base to show that they’re serious.

And it’s killing me, because it was completely predictable that this would happen in December, when they made the grand bargain to extend unemployment benefits for another year, and the Bush give aways to the rich for two more years, but didn’t pass a continuing resolution, and didn’t extend the debt ceiling.

I just finished reading Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s Winner Take All Politics, and I am deeply depressed and scared.  I’m not entirely convinced by their economic analysis (which I’ll write more about another day), but I am totally persuaded by their tale of how big business and the financial sector have consistently blocked increased taxation  of the hyper rich and regulation.  (Not that this is a new story to me, but they do a good job of putting it in historical context.)  But the book came out last year, so they leave it pretty much as a story about how divided government and the increased use of the filibuster protects against any progressive changes through “drift”.   But what we’re seeing now is not drift, but an all out attack on the role of government.

And meanwhile, I get lots of messages on Facebook and twitter about the attack  on abortion rights and the threats to NPR, but most of my lovely middle-class progressive friends don’t seem to have noticed that there’s an all out war on the poor.  I know, that’s not quite fair, some of you have.  And I haven’t been banging the drums about it myself, because it doesn’t feel like it will make any difference.  But unless we can build a movement that Chuck Schumer is as afraid of as John Boehner is of the tea partiers, we’re going to get compromised down the river every single time.

stumbling on

Saturday, March 19th, 2011

This crazy awful week brought Phantom back to her blog, and I guess it’s brought me back, too, although this is going to be a bit of a rambling post.  I heard about the earthquake first reading friends’ Facebook posts last Friday morning, and I feel like I’ve spent much of the past week obsessively hitting the refresh button on my browser, trying to find new news.

I can’t seen to find answers to the questions that I’m most interested in.  The nuclear worries seem to have pushed out the stories about the people in the shelters, and now Libya seems to be pushing the coverage of the reactor off.  But I can’t stop thinking of all those people in shelters — I don’t have a good sense of how many people are still in them, and if they’re getting regular food and water now.  It seems like some of those towns are going to take years to rebuild, if ever.  I didn’t think I’d ever say something good about the response to Katrina, but putting people on buses to Houston did make a lot more sense than putting them up in tent cities in Louisiana.  Is anything like that happening?

Living Social is doing a 1:1 match of $5 donations to the red cross, so I did that, but I haven’t donated otherwise yet.  It’s not clear to me that money is what’s preventing aid groups from doing what’s necessary.  If you can’t get into the devastated areas, what can you do with money?  Haiti may still be the higher need.  I just don’t know.

I’m fascinated by the “there’s no looting in Japan” meme.  Well, for one thing, there’s not much left to loot in the worst hit towns.  But I thought this take on it from Slate was interesting.    At least some of the  versions of the meme have clear racial overtones.  Does anyone remember seeing stories one way or the other about whether there was looting in China after their big earthquake?  I don’t.      (As contrasted with Japan, China is NOT a country that prizes waiting on lines — or at least that ‘s what I gather from reading American Family’s very funny take on Hong Kong Disneyland — does that translate into looting during a crisis?  beats me.)

As it happens, we have tickets to go to China and Japan this summer.  We also have trip insurance.  We’re obviously waiting to see what develops, but at this point unless the radiation and the power shortages get a lot worse, I assume we’ll go ahead.  We weren’t planning on going anywhere north of Tokyo.    Yes, there’s a detectable level of radiation, but my house also has a fan venting the radon out of our basement.  People don’t freak out about having CT scans, which are higher levels of radiation.  (Actually, maybe they should freak out a bit more, especially about the “whole body” scans sold to perfectly healthy people as a precautionary measure.)

So, it’s been a hard news cycle week. And then we all took turns with the stomach flu.  But we’re all better now, and it was a gorgeous sunny warm day today, and we worked on the tree platform in our yard (the lumber for which has been in our garage since October) and N rode his bike without training wheels for the first time.  So, I guess I’m cultivating my garden.  (And Candide was written in response to the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, which just goes to show that people have been struggling with the question of how do you keep going in the face of horror for an awful long time, and will presumably be doing so in the future unless we actually succeed in blowing ourselves up.)

the email I just sent to Gerry Connolly

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

Dear Rep Connolly

I am writing to express my deep concern about news reports that suggest that you are considering supporting extensions of the Bush tax cuts for the richest 1 percent of Americans.

In the long term, we can not continue to run large budget deficits.  Therefore, a vote to extend these tax cuts is a vote to cut spending on education, on roads, on health care, on job training.  It is a vote to take away money from child care and from senior centers.  It is a vote to accept the increasing inequality of opportunity in our society and to surrender the hope that government can make things better.

I know, some of your constituents are fortunate to make more than $250,000 a year.  But they benefit from a healthy society, and can afford to contribute.  Our economy grew very well during the 1990s when tax rates were at the levels that they would return to.

Please give me a reason to vote for you next month.


I sent the same letter (w/o the last sentence) to Warner and Webb.


I am really f-ing depressed tonight.   And I don’t see it getting better soon.

Update:  I meant to link to this  Center for American Progress report on what a budget balanced through spending cuts alone would look like.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul

Friday, August 6th, 2010

I’ve spent much of this week at work banging my head against the wall that of all the offsets Congress could have found to use to pay for state fiscal relief (FMAP) and education jobs, the one they chose to use was a cut in Food Stamps (SNAP).  And then the Senate decided to cut Food Stamps some more to pay for child nutrition programs.

I get that inflation has been lower than predicted, and so the Food Stamp increase in the recovery act is lasting longer than expected. But, as Dave Obey said, that would have just meant that “some poor bastard is going to get a break for a change.”  (And kudos to @AnnieLowrey for following the story from the start.)

At least with the FMAP/EduJobs bill, I can make the macroeconomic argument that it makes sense to spend more money today, prevent huge layoffs in the states and local governments, and cut spending in 2014.  (If the economy is this bad still 4 years from now, we’re going to have much bigger problems.)  But in the child nutrition bill, the increases would actually come AFTER the cuts.

Matthew Yglesias wrote about the child nutrition bill s today and noted that it really is robbing Peter to pay Paul — taking from dinners to pay for lunches, and from the summer to pay for the school year.  I wanted to highlight one of his commenter’s responses, since it’s rare to hear from people who are directly affected.  JRoth wrote:

I’ve been on SNAP benefits for over a year (family of 4, household income in ‘08 and ‘09 around $20k), and I can tell you that the margin between the old benefits ceiling (somewhere around $500) and the new (well over $600) makes a huge difference in my family’s grocery budget. With the former, I can just about squeeze the entire month’s food into the SNAP budget – a couple months we had to go the last 2-3 days on leftovers and cobbling together whatever was in the freezer. Under the new benefits, I can buy my kids fresh fruit without stressing over the difference between a $2 pint of blueberries and a $2.50 pint.

Point being, insofar as the public health goal of SNAP is enabling more healthful family eating, an extra $25/person/month goes a long way in obviating the (perceived) need to buy the high calorie/low nutrition food products that are implicated in low income obesity.

As for school lunches, the current budget is laughably small (under $2/child/lunch, iirc), and so any improvement in that number will represent an improvement. But school lunches remain a nutritional wasteland, even in places where there’s an awareness (my kid’s school offers whole grain in most meals and healthful-seeming dishes, but the reality is A. they still taste gross and B. the backup options are unconscionable things like Uncrustables.

That sounds right to me.  I was shocked and slightly horrified to read last month that Fairfax schools were selected best in the country for nutritious school lunches.  My kids eat the school lunch about once a week (N thinks it’s a huge treat, and would have it every day if we let him; D only wants to do it on the days that they have grilled cheese or breakfast for lunch.)  If that’s the best, I can’t begin to imagine what the worst looks like.

mental accounting

Monday, June 21st, 2010

I finally had a chance to listen to the Planet Money podcast from last month about payday loans.  Overall, it mostly covered familiar territory, but I was intrigued by the research suggesting that rate ceilings tend to act as “anchors” for interest rates, and wind up as floors.

I was also struck by one element of the story of the man who kept on coming back to take out high-interest loan after high-interest loan, in order to support his gambling habit.  In passing, they noted that he owned his house free and clear.  I think the implication was that he was making a mistake taking out payday loans, when he could have taken out a much cheaper mortgage.  Alternatively, I could tell a story that he had figured out a mental accounting scheme that let him keep gambling relatively small amounts, without risking losing his house.  The payday loans may not have been as irrational a choice as all that.

In perhaps related news, Jim McDermott and Barney Frank have introduced bills that would legalize — and tax — internet gambling.   In general, I’m vaguely supportive, mostly because I think it’s pretty much impossible to stop people from gambling on the internet anyway.  I like some of the causes that the money is supposed to support — although I’m also very aware that in most of the states where lottery sales are supposed to support education, they just supplant money the state would have spent from general revenues otherwise, with no net increase in spending.

is unemployment insurance the new welfare?

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

If you listen to the US Congress, unemployment insurance is becoming the new welfare.

Orrin Hatch today dropped an amendment that would require states to test applicants for cash assistance (TANF) and unemployment insurance for illegal drugs before they could be approved for benefits.  We’re used to dealing with this sort of stupidity in the TANF program, but I have to admit that I was surprised to see this applied to unemployment insurance as well.  At least Hatch is honest enough to admit that testing all these people would cost far more than the value of any benefits it might save — when this comes up at the state level, legislators are constantly surprised to learn that it doesn’t save money.

This proposal isn’t likely to go anywhere, but meanwhile the Senate is dropping the COBRA subsidy for health insurance for the unemployed as well as the $25 a week additional federal benefits from the UI extension bill.  And almost no one is talking about continuing benefits for the “99-ers” those who have exhausted 99 weeks of unemployment insurance.

My theory is that people are terrified by the notion that you could do nothing wrong, be  a good worker, lose your job, search hard for another one, and still be unemployed after two years.  They don’t want to believe that they live in a country where it could happen, and they don’t want to believe that it could happen to them, or to their friends or family.  And we’ve got this really weird dynamic of unemployment right now, where unemployment is really high but no longer climbing,  nearly half of the unemployed have been out of work  for more than 27 weeks, but at this point if you’ve got a job, your odds of being laid off are pretty low.

So people are  convincing themselves that the long-term unemployed  must have done something wrong.    They must not really be looking, or they’re too picky, or they’re not willing to move to where the jobs are, or something.  And so it’s ok to cut them off, because they deserve it.

Update: Nancy Folbre just said almost the exact same thing in the New York Times today, except she’s an economist, so she used bigger words.

a day with no deaths

Monday, April 19th, 2010

Today is the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing.   I can vividly remember walking into the classroom building of my grad school to be met by the television coverage of that eviscerated building.  A quick search of my archives says that I’ve never blogged about it, although I did mention McVeigh in the discussion of who is a terrorist.   I don’t remember the news covering it as much in previous years.  Is it because horrific events get more attention when their anniversaries end in 5 or 0, or because the prospect of home-grown terror seems more likely this year?  Not sure.

And Friday was the third anniversary of the Virginia Tech shooting, which still gets a lot of airtime around here, although probably not elsewhere in the country.

I’ve written before that if you go back into history far enough, there’s presumably no date that isn’t soaked in blood.  Fortunately, we do have limited memories and most of the horrors are allowed to fade into obscurity.

I’ve been reading about Lag B’Omer because I agreed to lead a service linked to it.  Lag B’Omer is a truly minor Jewish holiday, the one day break in a 49 day period where otherwise you’re not supposed to get married or get a haircut.  It’s traditionally associated with Rabbi Akiva, and bows and arrows.  Sort of hard for me to get excited about.  But I went to the Velveteen Rabbi, and here’s what she wrote:

Custom has it that no weddings take place during the Counting of the Omer, because of a plague that struck the disciples of Rabbi Akiva during this period. The exception is on Lag B’Omer, when weddings do take place, because on that day during the plague, nobody died.

Jeff explained this on Friday night at services, before we counted the Omer that night. First he joked that only Jews could make a holiday of a day when nobody died. (We laughed.) And then he observed that, in this day and age, when so many of us begin our mornings by turning on the radio or checking news online to see how many casualties the Iraq war has generated overnight, we might find ourselves identifying with the impulse to celebrate such a day. (We weren’t laughing any more.)

Here’s hoping for a day when we turn on the radio, or check our news aggregators, and don’t hear a single thing about Iraq, Israel/Palestine, or anywhere else in the world where conflicts have been brewing — not because the world isn’t paying attention, but because the killing has finally stopped.

Action alert

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

The single most frightening statistic out of this recession is this one:  41 percent of unemployed workers have been out of work for 27 weeks or more. This is vastly higher than in previous recessions.

26 weeks is the maximum length of time that workers can receive regular unemployment insurance, but as often happens during a recession, there has been a series of extensions, paid for at the federal level.  These run out on Sunday.   If nothing happens, 1.2 million workers will lose their benefits starting next week.  Even if there’s a one or two day gap, it will cost state agencies a ton of money to reprogram their systems, and cause delays in workers getting their benefits.  Extending them should be as closer to a no-brainer as exists in politics, but it is proving surprisingly hard.  So, I’m begging everyone I know, call your Senator, and tell them:

1) Pass the short-term extension immediately so benefits don’t run out.  It is unacceptable to hold 1.2 million workers hostage so that a few dead millionaires can pay less taxes.

2)  Extend benefits until the end of the year.  Congress has too much else to get done this year to keep passing short-term extensions and then having to take it up again. And workers need to know that they’re not about to be cut off.

3)  Not everyone qualifies for unemployment insurance, and some people just want a job.  The TANF Emergency Fund, created under the Recovery Act, gives states money for subsidized jobs for low-income parents, and also helps pay for rising cash assistance caseloads.  It doesn’t expire until September, but states are doing their budgets now, and they’ll start shutting down their programs if they don’t know that the money will be available next year.  Plus, because it’s part of TANF — aka “welfare” — it has almost no chance of passing on it’s own.  So please tell your Senators to ask that it be extended along with UI.