Archive for the ‘US Politics’ Category

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.

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.


Who is a terrorist?

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

I’ve been reading a bunch of interesting takes on the question of whether Joe Stack (the guy who flew the plane into the IRS building in Texas) is a “terrorist” and whether the word has any meaning at all.

I think there’s a lot of truth in Glenn Greenwald’s argument that as actually used by the American media, the word has become racialized, and essentially means “a Muslim who fights against or even expresses hostility towards the United States, Israel and their allies.”   But I think the more interesting question is whether it is possible to set that definition aside and draw a line someplace that makes sense.

Personally, I don’t think there’s any question that the 9/11 perpetrators, Timothy McVeigh, the IRA bombers of the 1980s,  and the Beslan murderers all qualify as terrorists.

On the “just nuts” side of the fence, I’d clearly put Amy Bishop and the Columbine murderers.  In both cases, the attacks were aimed at people known to the killers, and were not politically motivated.

The government was pretty quick in the case of both Nidal Hassan (the Ft Hood murderer) and Joe Stack to reassure the public that these were “not terrorist acts,” by which I think they mean “were not linked to a larger network of terrorists.”  By contrast, Najibullah Zazi, who just pled guilty to conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction in the New York City subways, is considered a terrorist, because he was recruited and trained by al-Qaida.  I’m not sure I buy that distinction — which would put McVeigh on the “not terrorist” side — but at least it makes some sense and isn’t purely racial.

I think I’m inclined to say if you’re killing people — especially civilians — you don’t know, and are politically motivated, I’m ok calling you a terrorist, even if you’re acting entirely alone.  That would make Stack and the Unabomber terrorists.  I don’t know enough about Hassan’s motivation or Bruce Ivins’ (the alleged anthrax killer) to say with any confidence which side they’re on.

That said, I sort of agree with Jill in thinking that some actions — flying an airplane into a building, bombing a public building or public transportation — are maybe inherently terrorist, regardless of your motivation or whether you’re part of a network.  But my examples (Beslan on one side, Columbine on the other) suggest that other things , eg. shooting up a bunch of kids at school — are not.

What do you think?  Does the distinction matter?

the budget and new media

Monday, February 1st, 2010

I spent most of today immersed in the details of the federal budget.  (And as far as I can tell, no one has posted it in ereader format yet.  On the other hand, NASA is starting to post its histories as ebooks.)  I’ll post about substance later in the week, but for now I want to comment about the differences between the Health and Human Services (HHS) and Labor presentations.

HHS basically took an old media approach.  There was a press conference.  Anyone who wasn’t credentialed press could watch in a different room, over a closed-circuit TV, or via webcast, or could listen in on a phone line, but could not ask questions.  HHS has posted the transcript of Sebelius’ prepared remarks, but not of the Q and A session, and if there’s archived video of the conference, I couldn’t find it.

Labor did a live webchat, which is archived on the site. Anyone — press or otherwise — could submit a question, via the chat window, email, phone, or twitter.  And it’s clear, from the questions, that some were submitted by press, some by advocates, some by people running programs, and some by the general public.  I don’t know who Solis had in the room with her, but it seemed to me that the answers were much more substantive than in the HHS Q and A session.

I’d love to know who makes the decisions about how to run these events.

state of the union

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Ok, I’m going to give liveblogging the state of the union address a crack.  Folding laundry at the same time…

How rare is it not to begin with “the state of the union is strong?”

Mention of “those who were already facing poverty” and “the challenges of American families” in the first few minutes.

Immediately points out that the problems are not new since his presidency. “Change has not come fast enough.”

Ok, here it is: “Despite our hardships, our union is strong.”

Boo, banks.  Yay tax cuts.  Yay recovery act.

Need a new jobs bill.  Yes we do.   I’m really skeptical about the small business job creation tax cut.  Infrastructure, high speed rail.  Ok.

Some red meat language about the need for financial reform, and how the lobbyists are trying to kill it.  We’ve already agreed that the banks are an easy target, right.

Energy discussion.  Interesting to start off with the parts that the R’s like the most — nuclear power plants, additional drilling — and then move to comprehensive climate change.

Goal of doubling exports over the next five years!  Wow — not clear how we do this.   Seek new markets.  Are we going to get the Chinese to allow the dollar to fall against the Yuan?

“best anti-poverty program is a world-class education.”

Revitalize community colleges — hey, that’s the bill my colleagues have  been working on (SAFRA).  $10k tax credit for 4 years of colleges — wonder if that is supposed to be refundable.  Capping loan repayment — that’s a good idea, because loans are on average a good investment, but they’re a lot more risky than generally acknowledged.

9:43 and he finally mentioned health insurance reform.

Wow, Michelle’s smile is tight.

Good strong language on health care.  Talks about what it does — vast improvement over the status quo.

Switching over to talk about deficits.  Points out the surplus in 2000.   Deficit caused by two wars, two tax cuts, and the prescription drug benefits.

Threatens a veto to enforce spending caps.  The claim is this is to offset the increased deficit since start of Obama administration.  Repeats call to extend middle class tax cuts, cancel others.  Bipartisan spending commission.  PayGo.  Freeze won’t start until next year.

“common sense — a novel idea.”  A bit snarky here.  I wonder how that plays to the public.

Campaign finance reform. Earmark reform.  “Reform how we work together.”

Stop the holds on nominations.  That would be good.  Republicans can’t just keep saying no, need to share responsibility of governing.

Somewhat awkward pivot to national security.  All our troops are coming home from Iraq.  Didn’t  hear a date there.  Support troops when they return.

Arms control, disarmament.  G-20.  Bioterrorism. This is important stuff, but the rhetoric is pretty dull.  Is he losing people?  Helping the people of Haiti rebuild.

Civil rights division that actually does something.  End don’t ask don’t tell.  Enforce equal pay laws. Good stuff, but I missed the transition — why is this coming after the national security stuff?  immigration reform. This is feeling like a bit of an afterthought.

I like the content, but think it dragged too long.  Need to see what’s actually in the budget next week.

David Brooks seems to like it, which is probably a bad sign.  “General tone of moderation.”  But I just don’t see the R’s giving an inch.


Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

Last week I read about deficit spending from a variety of perspectives, ranging from the Pew-Peterson Commission on Budget Reform to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities to  the Economic Policy Institute.  These are groups that are usually depicted in the media as being on opposite sides of the budget debate, so I was pretty surprised at how many points of consensus there were:

  • The US government’s long-term budget trajectory leads to unsustainable levels of debt.  These are bad both because government borrowing will crowd out private investment, and because the interest payments will consume an unacceptable share of the federal budget.
  • Pew-Peterson call for a goal of the debt stabilizing at no more than 60 percent of GDP.  (I gather the National Academy of Sciences has issued a report with the same goal.)  CBPP notes that there’s no evidence for supporting that particular target, and argues that a goal of 70 percent of GDP is more achievable, and doesn’t require such painful cuts that everyone just says it’s impossible and gives up.  EPI doesn’t set a specific target.
  • However, it does not make sense to try to balance the budget in the next year or so, while we’re still recovering from the recession.  Cutting spending sharply now would put us back into a recession.  Even Pew-Peterson says that policy changes shouldn’t be implemented until 2012.
  • The major drivers of the long-term problem are 1) the growing costs of Medicare, Medicaid (especially the portion of Medicaid that pays for nursing homes), and to a lesser degree Social Security and 2) the large 2001 and 2003 tax cuts.  (EPI and CBPP note that Medicare and Medicaid are actually growing slightly slower than overall health care costs, and argue that the solution has to include overall control of health care costs.)
  • The hole is too big to fill either by just cutting spending, or by just raising taxes, but will require a combination of the two.

That said, why the heck is Obama calling for a three-year freeze in domestic discretionary spending? Everyone agrees that domestic discretionary spending isn’t the problem — and if you cut it in half, we’d still run long-term budget deficits — and cause a great deal of harm in the process.  Paul Krugman is scathing — and accurately so.  It’s bad economics, distracts from the real challenges, and feeds into the Republican message machine.  I truly don’t get it.  Poking around the web, it sounds like the kindest thing that anyone is saying is that it’s just posturing and won’t really result in horrible cuts, but I’m not sure that’s any better.

More good reading:  How to Spot a Deficit Peacock, from the Center for American Progress.

Obama at one year

Monday, January 25th, 2010

The theme I chose for this version of the blog lets you upload your own photo for the frame in the heading (it originally had a truly adorable picture of a little girl).  I spent a while trying to decide what picture might represent a half-changed world, and then picked the one that’s there, which I took on Inauguration Day last year. One year later (well, plus 5 days), I do think we’re living in a half-changed world.  Not as much changed as I wanted, as I believed was coming, but changed.  If you had told me four years ago that we’d be at this stage, I’d have been pretty darn pleased.

I think this Administration has messed some things up.  If they hadn’t wasted so much time over the summer trying to be all bipartisan, health care would have been passed by now.  They seem to have just been blindsided by the populist rage over TARP.   I grind my teeth every time the President suggests that small-business tax cuts should be part of the jobs bill and ducks talking about direct job creation.   And while the public doesn’t care that there are still significant unfilled positions in the agencies waiting for political appointments, it’s a bad sign, and makes it hard for the government to do its job.  They’re not as smart as they think they are, and they’re trying to thread some awfully tight needles.

But I don’t have any reason to think that Clinton would have done any better over the past year, and I’m quite confident that McCain would have done a lot worse.  I think under a Republican administration, we’d have wound up with a “recovery” bill that was nothing but tax cuts, and we’d have national unemployment levels that look like Michigan’s.  It’s hard to rally the troops under a banner cry of “it could have been worse!” but it could have been a lot worse.

Update: Schmitt and Perlstein are far more thoughtful than I am.

Not W

Friday, October 9th, 2009

Does anyone really doubt that what Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize for is not being George W. Bush?  The US hasn't made a huge amount of progress towards creating peace in the past 9 months, but at least we're no longer driving full speed in the wrong direction.

The interesting question is whether being chosen for the Nobel Peace Prize on a "aspirational" basis will actually make it easier or harder for Obama to accomplish his goals — nuclear disarmament, effective policies on climate change, a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, a US exit from Iraq.  I'm not at all sure — what do you think?

I didn't think Obama's speech was great, but it hit the right general notes — appreciation, recognition that this wasn't for anything he's done yet, a statement that the US can be a leader but the whole world has to be involved.

Health care reform

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

I work on other programs affecting low-income families, not health care.  But if Congress passes a true health care reform year, and no improvements in the programs that I work on, I'll consider it a success.  And if we get everything on my organization's policy agenda for 2009 but health care reform crashes and burns, I'll be disappointed.

Ezra Klein is blogging for the Washington Post now, and he's got two really good pieces today, one from this morning on why the CBO cost estimates are putting health care reform in danger and one from tonight on the Finance committee's revised plan. Basically, the budget office has told Congress, no, you're not going to save enough money with comparative effectiveness research and improved health care IT to pay for the expansions in coverage you want to see.  If you want real health care reform, the choices are to come up with the money from some other source (e.g taxes of one sort or another) or to get serious about cost-controls (e.g. take a chunk out of insurers' hides, and possibly out of doctors' as well.)  The no-hard-choices fairy isn't going to save you.

It's looking like Congress isn't really going to tackle these hard choices until after the Fourth of July recess.  Which means that the next few weeks are a great time to weigh in with your Representative and Senators about the need for real health care reform — including a public plan — and the need to pay for it with comprehensive tax reform.  If you really want single payer, go ahead and tell them that, but then tell them about what you think is second best, because single payer isn't happening, not this time around, and it won't be more likely in 10 years if this round collapses.

Are you paying attention to the health care debate, or have all the different bills made your eyes cross?  Are you waiting until things sort out a bit to pay attention?  What burning questions would you like answered?  As I said, this isn't my area of expertise, but if I don't know the answer, I probably know where to find it.  If you want to get into the wonky details yourself, my favorite health policy sites are Families USA, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.


Thursday, May 14th, 2009

I finally got a chance to watch Milk on DVD, and thought it was terrific.  I knew that he was a gay politician and that he had been killed, and that was about it.  Having learned a little about him, I now want to know more — after watching the movie, I added The Times of Harvey Milk (which is a documentary about him) to my queue.

If the movie is portraying him fairly, Harvey Milk was a natural-born politician, able to talk to almost anyone, able to bring people together, able to make people have hope in spite of themselves.  Watching the scenes of him leading crowds, knowing what was coming, was almost unbearable.

One of my favorite professors in college used to talk about "Dante's influence on Virgil" meaning that after the Inferno, no one ever looked at the Aeneid the same way.  In the same way, Milk's story resonates differently today, in the age of Obama, with half a dozen states recognizing same-sex marriages, than it could possibly have resonated in 1984, when the documentary was made.

In the movie, Milk insists that all of his friends have to start coming out to their families and straight friends, because once your image of "the gays" is replaced by the face of someone you know, it's hard to hate.  It made me wonder how the equality movement would be different if AIDS hadn't hit the gay community so hard during the 1980s.  HIV/AIDS forced people out of the closet who would have stayed quiet otherwise.  And it's certainly hard to imagine that the right to marry would have become such a central focus of the gay and lesbian movement if the bathhouse culture of the 1970s had continued on.

I highly recommend the movie if you haven't seen it yet.