a bird and a bottle

December 28, 2006, 11:21 pm
Filed under: news & views, politics

Preach on, Paul Krugman.

After first attempting to deny the scale of last month’s defeat, the apologists have settled on a story line that sounds just like Marxist explanations for the failure of the Soviet Union. What happened, you see, was that the noble ideals of the Republican revolution of 1994 were undermined by Washington’s corrupting ways. And the recent defeat was a good thing, because it will force a return to the true conservative path.

But the truth is that the movement that took power in 1994 — a movement that had little to do with true conservatism — was always based on a lie.

The lie is right there in “The Freedom Revolution,” the book that Dick Armey, who had just become the House majority leader, published in 1995. He declares that most government programs don’t do anything “to help American families with the needs of everyday life,” and that “very few American families would notice their disappearance.” He goes on to assert that “there is no reason we cannot, by the time our children come of age, reduce the federal government by half as a percentage of gross domestic product.”

Right. Somehow, I think more than a few families would notice the disappearance of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — and those three programs alone account for a majority of nondefense, noninterest spending. The truth is that the government delivers services and security that people want. Yes, there’s some waste — just as there is in any large organization. But there are no big programs that are easy to cut.

As long as people like Mr. Armey, Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay were out of power, they could run on promises to eliminate vast government waste that existed only in the public’s imagination — all those welfare queens driving Cadillacs. But once in power, they couldn’t deliver.

That’s why government by the radical right has been an utter failure even on its own terms: the government hasn’t shrunk. Federal outlays other than interest payments and defense spending are a higher percentage of G.D.P. today than they were when Mr. Armey wrote his book: 14.8 percent in fiscal 2006, compared with 13.8 percent in fiscal 1995.

Unable to make good on its promises, the G.O.P., like other failed revolutionary movements, tried to maintain its grip by exploiting its position of power. Friends were rewarded with patronage: Jack Abramoff began building his web of corruption almost as soon as Republicans took control. Adversaries were harassed with smear campaigns and witch hunts: Congress spent six years and many millions of dollars investigating a failed land deal, and Bill Clinton was impeached over a consensual affair.

But it wasn’t enough. Without 9/11, the Republican revolution would probably have petered out quietly, with the loss of Congress in 2002 and the White House in 2004. Instead, the atrocity created a window of opportunity: four extra years gained by drowning out unfavorable news with terror alerts, starting a gratuitous war, and accusing Democrats of being weak on national security.

Yet the Bush administration failed to convert this electoral success into progress on a right-wing domestic agenda. The collapse of the push to privatize Social Security recapitulated the failure of the Republican revolution as a whole. Once the administration was forced to get specific about the details, it became obvious that private accounts couldn’t produce something for nothing, and the public’s support vanished.

In the end, Republicans didn’t shrink the government. But they did degrade it. Baghdad and New Orleans are the arrival destinations of a movement based on deep contempt for governance.

Is that the end for the radical right? Probably not. As a long-suffering civil servant once told me, bad policy ideas are like cockroaches: you can flush them down the toilet, but they keep coming back. Many of the ideas that failed in the Bush years had previously failed in the Reagan years. So there’s no reason to assume they’re gone for good.

Indeed, it appears that loss of power and the ensuing lack of accountability is liberating right-wingers to lie yet again: since last month’s election, I’ve noticed a number of Social Security privatizers propounding the same free-lunch falsehoods that the Bush administration had to abandon in the face of demands that it present an actual plan.

Still, the Republican revolution of 1994 is over. And not a moment too soon.


The One Thing About Which Sam Brownback and I Agree
December 28, 2006, 4:00 pm
Filed under: criminal justice, law, news

Sorry for the break in posts, folks. I took a much-needed break from my computer. I will be away this weekend and then back to posting on my regular schedule next week. Happy New Year!

Much to my surprise, there is one issue on which Sam Brownback – the right wing nut conservative Kansas Senator – and I agree: the need to institute reentry support programs for people leaving prison. As the New York Times Magazine reported last Sunday in a lengthy article about prison reform from the Right, Brownback and other Christian conservatives have of late taken a new tack on issues of prison and crime. Where they used to be “tough on crime” enthusiastic supporters of mandatory minimums, the War on Drugs, and other punitive policies, they now support treatment support upon reentry, and second chances (as signified by the Second Chance Act, which would provide incrased funding to address the problem of recidivism through state-based programs to help reintegrate ex-offenders). They’re finally recognizing that locking people up in huge numbers does nothing to make society safer and might even be labeled inhumane in that it’s become purely retributive and not at all rehabilitative.

Where Brownback et al. and I diverge is our motives for supporting reentry programs and less draconian approaches. Though we are both/all seeking a more just approach to criminal justice, they believe that it can or must come through faith, and I believe that faith must be kept separate, for both constitutional and moral reasons. While faith-based organizations may have a (substantial) role to play in prison reform, faith cannot be the only path to reentry support – and it cannot be the only reason to fund such programs.

I’m not sure how much to emphasize this difference – is it ultimately unimportant if we believe in the same outcome (especially in this case, where for so long the prison reform movement had no political allies) or are the means as important as the end?

Either way, I guess I will have to reconcile myself to the fact that I can dislike Brownback with every bone in my body…except one.

Our 74 cents.
December 24, 2006, 9:10 am
Filed under: feminism/s & gender, news

According to an article in today’s NY Times, the pay gap between college-educated men and women is widening. The article offers two explanations for this disturbing trend (women are earning 1 cent less now ($.74) than we did a decade ago ($.75) for every dollar a man earns):

Like so much about gender and the workplace, there are at least two ways to view these trends. One is that women, faced with most of the burden for taking care of families, are forced to choose jobs that pay less — or, in the case of stay-at-home mothers, nothing at all.

If the government offered day-care programs similar to those in other countries or men spent more time caring for family members, women would have greater opportunity to pursue whatever job they wanted, according to this view.

The other view is that women consider money a top priority less often than men do. Many may relish the chance to care for children or parents and prefer jobs, like those in the nonprofit sector, that offer more opportunity to influence other people’s lives.

Both views, economists note, could have some truth to them.

“Is equality of income what we really want?” asked Claudia Goldin, an economist at Harvard who has written about the revolution in women’s work over the last generation. “Do we want everyone to have an equal chance to work 80 hours in their prime reproductive years? Yes, but we don’t expect them to take that chance equally often.”

Ok, I was with the Times on the first explanation – that one way to explain the pay gap is that women often choose or are forced to be the primary caregivers in their families, and that one way to address this pressure might be government-sponsored childcare near the places that parents work.

But the paper lost me on that second reason. And here’s why: it my be true that some women consider money less of a priority than men do, but we should question what is nature and what is nurture. Women have long been leaders at the nonprofit level because it was for a long time the only sector in which women could lead. For a long time, men did not take nonprofit jobs since the low pay tended to equal low prestige. It’s also true that many women do relish the opportunity to care for their children.

But so, one might argue, would many men, if given the chance.

Yet in part due to the pay disparity charted in the article, it’s often all or nothing for mothers in the workplace, and as a corrollary it’s often all or nothing for fathers as well. Because American jobs are so demanding (whether a lawyer working 100 hours a week or a starbucks barista with two other jobs to pay the rent), and employers are required to provide so little in terms of quality of life concessions, American families often resort to having one parent who works full time and another who stays home full time. Any other balance seems, to many, impossible. For the millions of families who do not have the luxury of living on a single salary, or the families in which – gasp! – both parents actually want to continue to work after having children (and, I would guess, for all women regardless of their work status), the whole “women choose this” line just feels old. And like an excuse for not doing more to allow women to be equal contributors to and beneficiaries of American life.

Criminal Justice? Some Thoughts on Genarlow Wilson
December 22, 2006, 10:26 am
Filed under: criminal justice, feminism/s & gender, law, news

I am sure most of you have heard by now about the sad case in Georgia in which a young man has been sentenced to ten years for having consensual* oral sex with a fifteen year-old when he was seventeen. The NY Times features an editorial today that is really spot-on (and captures some of the anger I feel about this case). I’ve pasted the whole editorial below. I hope you’ll read it.

As I said, I think the Times does a pretty good job here, but fails to mention one important thing: race. Mr. Wilson, a black man, was prosecuted by a white prosecutor in the American South. The combination of good ol’ boy politics and wide prosecutorial discretion has resulted in a tragic misapplication of the law. There’s been a lot of talk about this case in the blogosphere, and many others have written at length about the issues of race bound up in Mr. Wilson’s prosecution and conviction (see differing opinions here, here, here, and a feminist take here).

That last link from Tennessee Guerilla Women has contact information so you can send a letter to the GA governor letting him know what you think of his state’s handling of this case…. I encourage everyone to do so. And without further ado, here’s the NY Times Editorial:

Free Genarlow Wilson Now

Genarlow Wilson loves reading mystery novels and can’t wait for the next Harry Potter book. The 20-year-old former high school football player and honor student works in a library, the perfect job for a young bookworm. Unfortunately, that is where the good news ends and a genuine horror story of this country’s legal system begins.

The library in Georgia where Mr. Wilson works is in prison. He is two years into a sentence for engaging in consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl at a New Year’s Eve party when he was 17. He won’t be eligible for parole until he has served 10 years, essentially sacrificing his remaining youth to an obvious miscarriage of justice.

As Shaila Dewan reported in The Times this week, Mr. Wilson has been convicted of aggravated child molestation even though he and the girl were both minors at the time. Even if he could win an early release, Mr. Wilson could not go home to his family. He would have to register as a sex offender and would be prohibited from living with his 8-year-old sister. It is all the more disgraceful because the Georgia Supreme Court last week refused to hear his appeal.

The sexual act took place during a party involving sex, marijuana and alcohol, all captured on a graphic videotape. But that does not make Mr. Wilson a child molester. When high school students engage in consensual sexual activity, that is not the same as an adult molesting a teenager or a teenager molesting a child.

What makes this case more absurd is that if Mr. Wilson and the young woman had sexual intercourse, he would have been guilty only of a misdemeanor and not required to register as a sex offender, thanks to a provision in the law meant to avoid just this type of draconian punishment for consensual youthful indiscretions, the “Romeo and Juliet” exception. And since Mr. Wilson’s conviction, the law has been changed to exempt oral sex as well. But the courts say that can’t help Mr. Wilson retroactively.

His lawyer is planning to file a habeas petition seeking his release. The courts need to grant it and expunge his record so that Mr. Wilson can return to his family and his once promising academic career. Legislators in other states should take notice and make sure that their own laws do not catch children in dragnets designed for predatory adults.

* Regarding the young woman’s consent: This article casts the young woman’s consent into doubt. And the defense tactic of showing that the woman flirted and was also drinking and using drugs makes me uncomfortable because it raises the specter of the “she was asking for it” defense. But I think in this case we need to put the issue of consent aside – if only for a moment – so we can figure out how to remedy what is clearly an egregious use of a now overturned law.

And Here I Thought that the Anti-Abortion Rights Movement Couldn’t Get Any Crazier
December 21, 2006, 11:13 am
Filed under: feminism/s & gender, law

Above the Law reports that a woman has filed a class action lawsuit against planned parenthood…for failure to warn that the fetus she sought t0 – and did – abort was a “complete human being.”

I shit you not.

The case summary includes this bizarre claim:

As a result of the counseling, assertions and representations of the Planned Parenthood personnel and various Defendants, [Doe] underwent an abortion that day. Her unborn infant, Michael Doe, died as a result of the abortion procedure.

Um…that’s what they call it an abortion.

This lawsuit, besides being just plain old ridiculous, is bad policy. And beyond that, it makes women look stupid. I mean, there are certain things you understand when you seek an abortion, including that the fetus will no longer be viable afterwards. Lawsuits like this just encourage the belitting of women that is inherent in waiting periods and “informed consent” provisions.

Let’s hope the judge throws this one right out. If not, it’ll not only be bad for the anti-women crew, but also bad for women themselves.

Three Tales of Immigration
December 21, 2006, 8:10 am
Filed under: law, news & views, politics

For some reason, many people can’t talk about immigration – and particularly undocumented immigration – without flying into a rage. At a time in which must political talk is polemical and verging on nonsensical, debates about immigration are still especially vitriolic. I’m not sure why that is. In part, I think, it must be because of fears that undocumented immigrants take American jobs or commit a disproportionate amount of crime. These fears, it turns out, are unsupported by the facts (for more information, check out the Migration Policy Institute’s website and publications).

What often gets lost in the frenzy over fences and walls and raids is the lived experience of the men and women just trying to make a better life for themselves and their families. Certainly undocumented immigration in the U.S. is a problem – it creates a permanent underground economy and may depress the wages of U.S. workers – but it’s not one that will go away no matter how high the wall or how many guards the Border Patrol employs. So we need to address the realities of undocumented immigration by taking into account the reasons people come the U.S. and by not focusing so much on the ways we can keep them out or make them leave. (As an aside, some people use immigration as an argument against national healthcare. This is bullshit. Good American healthcare is a force that pulls immigrants here, but if it were such a strong force, there’d be more in migration to Sweden and less here.)

Legalization is a start, but it has to be combined with other initiatives, like development, increased legal visa numbers, and maybe even a guestworker program (I’m really not sure what I think of guestworker programs, and would be thrilled to hear what you think in comments).

Anyway, I don’t have a solution and I don’t thnk there’s an easy one. This is all just to say that this week’s series in the NY Times, charting the immigration experiences of three Mexican sisters (Part I, Part II, Part III) is worth reading if for nothing else that it explores the gray areas of an often black and white debate.

(image source)

Another Travesty of Justice
December 21, 2006, 7:50 am
Filed under: news & views, politics

The NY Times ran an editorial yesterday about the conditions of American military prisons and the subversion of justice that occurs there. When the piece is title “Only the Jailers are Safe,” you know things are bad. Very bad.

I think we can all agree that keeping Americans safe from terrorism should be a top priority for the federal government. But that can’t come at the expense of the constitutional rights and protections that we all have. Already the “war on terror” (what is it with these wars on x? they never turn out well) has done significant damage to the U.S.’s reputation abroad, as we have flouted the very ideals for which we say we stand.

How can the U.S. bring “freedom” to other countries if we don’t honor freedom or integrity ourselves? (Update: yes, I know this phrase is hackneyed at this point…but it’s still true.)