The Fuss About Russ

I'm scratching my head over this Michael Crowley piece on Russ Feingold's potential as a 2008 Democratic presidential candidate. After laying out a case for why the Wisconsin Senator gets pretty good ratings in, um, Daily Kos polls—turns out the answer is (surprise!) that he supports a fixed exit date to get out of Iraq—Crowley drops this ominous phrase:

But much of what these bloggers know about him is based on his votes on Iraq and the Patriot Act. The rest of his career might surprise them.

Oh no! Do tell us more. What Dairy State secrets lie obscured under the milky waters of Lake Minnetonka? Prince-like puffy-shirts? Cannibalism? A poor golf game? No, the biggest fault Crowley can find is that his colleagues in the Senate just don't like him. As it turns out, when you push for campaign finance reform, forbid your staffers to take trade association freebies, argue against raising congressional salaries, and worry about your party's slide to economic conservatism, well, you just end up making everyone else look bad.

Correct me if I'm wrong, that's exactly the sort of thing that Democratic primary voters—and bloggers—eat up, especially as more and more Dems are calling for the party to take a clear stance against "business as usual" and corruption in Congress. Those stances are his bread and butter. (You may remember a little something called McCain-Feingold, perhaps the most famous senatorial hyphenate of the past decade.)

The only other two objections are pretty silly too. Crowley fears that an opponent might cut and add pointing out that Feingold was among the more post-Monica impeachment-friendly Senators. But I can't imagine any other candidate, come Winter '07, thinking it would be a good idea to refight that decade-old battle. Finally he worries that Feingold's rather consistent stand on deferring to the President's prerogative in Senate confirmations will be a liability. Maybe—but that's precious little to hang 4,000 words on.

Correction: My bad. Lake Minnetonka is one of the thousand un-milky lakes in Minnesota. The mistake stems from thinking Prince hails from Milwaukee.

Selling Out, Abramoff Style

The web of scandal surrounding Jack Abramoff has made for great political drama. But in some ways, it's the story of a young man who, misguided as he may have been, got involved in politics to change the world. As he grew older, he climbed the ladder of Washington influence peddlers. The black art of lobbying brought him money and power—whatever was left of his Reagan-era idealism was left behind. (This arc was described by a recent Mother Jones piece, "The Fall of a True Believer.")

Today's New York Times details Abramoff's $9 million dollar deal to arrange a single meeting between Bush and the President of Gabon. Compare that to Abramoff's work in Africa in the 1980s, where he was deeply involved in an odd chapter of Cold War history: as a prominent or member of various groups working to organizing grassroots and congressional conservative support for anti-communist regimes and militias throughout Africa, it stands to reason that Abramoff did his fair share of roughing it as he helped to fight against the Red Empire.

Not nowadays. When negotiating the Gabon contract, through newly disclosed e-mails, Abramoff offered to travel to Africa, but only "on the basis by which I travel anywhere, being in a private aircraft, which bears a substantial cost unfortunately." Yes, how unfortunate.

By now, most people have seen enough evidence to realize that FEMA's so-called response to Hurricane katrina was criminally incompetent. What they do not realize, though, is that the federal government's response continues to be inadequate.

Take Calcasieu Parish, for instance, which was devastated by Hurricane Rita. Officials there were told repeatedly by FEMA that every household in the mandatory evacutation area was eligible for assistance. George W. Bush made the same promise. But no one in Calcasieu has seen a $2,000 check. Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen, in charge of FEMA's on-site relief efforts, announced in late October that failure to provide assistance was an error and that he would see to it that it was corrected as soon as possible.

A few days later, Allen informed parish officials that FEMA checks had been discontinued. The reason given was that the money was intended to help people "immediately after the storm." This Through the Looking Glass excuse is outrageous, considering that immediately after the storm, the people of Calcasieu stood homeless, waiting for the so-called immediate relief from FEMA. The Calcasieu Parish crisis also brings to mind what happened earlier in Plaquemines Parish, when--by the end of September--FEMA had not sent any operating funds to parish officials, and the governor had to run around finding money to cut an emergency check to keep the parish operating.

Thousands of Louisianians are still waiting for FEMA trailers, which are sometimes visible to them in lots where they sit empty. At first, FEMA was opposed to residents hooking up trailers next to their houses while they re-built, but they have since backed down on their opposition. Then the agency issued an order denying aid to affected families in which an employee had to travel to New Orleans or other affected areas to live in work trailers; they have since reversed that order, also. Residents have also had to deal with fly-by-night "insurance adjusters" who have never been trained to do anything but deny coverage, and there has been no one to monitor the incompetence.

For privacy reasons, FEMA refused to allow Louisiana voting officials to access records of displaced citizens so that they can vote in upcoming elections; just this week, FEMA reversed that decision. Though the privacy argument is a strong one, it is a safe assumption that people would prefer to be informed of their voting rights.

Last month, yet another Department of Homeland Security official resigned because he was unable to secure catering contracts for local vendors. As of early October, .014% of contracts had gone to Louisiana companies.

The big news in Louisiana, however, has been the federal government's insistence that the state repay any federal loan; such a request has never before been made following a major disaster. The rumor is that Louisiana's history of corruption makes it a bad risk for utilizing federal funds, despite Governor Kathleen Blanco's hiring of an independent auditor to monitor the money. Louisiana's history of corruption is indeed impressive, but so is the history of corruption of the Bush administration, which Congress overlooks on a daily basis. Halliburton, for example, can "misplace" $9 billion in Iraq, and no one bats an eye. And in late September, the Bush administration had yet to provide Congress with the required weekly spending breakdown on hurricane relief.

Though Michael Brown is finally gone for good, Louisianians have no reason to believe that FEMA and the rest of the federal government will keep its promises to the state. The news media has gone home, the Bush people are doing the bird flu show, and the nation has moved on. But just as Louisiana's legislators are too short-sighted to understand the consequences of a failed New Orleans economy, so are the country's lawmakers shortsighted as to the consequences of the failure of the economy of a state that provides 30% of the nation's energy, and whose Baton Rouge and New Orleans ports, combined, comprise the largest port in the world.

Over at TomPaine, Greg LeRoy, the executive director of Good Jobs First, provides a much-needed look into the billions of dollars in subsidies that Wal-Mart receives:

A Wal-Mart official once stated that the company seeks subsidies in about a third of its stores, suggesting that more than 1,100 of its U.S. stores are subsidized. A national survey by Good Jobs First in 2004 looked at 160 stores and all of the company's distribution centers—and found that more than 90 percent of them have been subsidized. Altogether, 244 subsidized facilities in 35 states received taxpayer deals of more than $1 billion.

The full Good Jobs First survey, available here, also cites at least 40 instances where Wal-Mart enjoyed abatement on property-taxes. And critics of "eminent domain" laws can note that Wal-Mart too has leaned on that crutch by condemning Wisconsin cornfields and apple orchards to seize land for its stores.

The idea of public subsidies for a company with an economy larger than that of most countries is comical. But shaming tactics are unlikely to work against a corporation that's willing to dissuade the unhealthy from working at its stores in order to cut costs, or one that's happy to deny reports about working conditions in its South American subsidiaries. On the other hand, the new Wal-Mart movie, has at the very least goaded the company into spending millions on a public relations counter-attack. As a charmingly commonsensical letter to the NYT editor reads:

This might seem like a simple question, but instead of Wal-Mart's investing in a "war room" to improve its public image, why doesn't the company just raise salaries, allow unions and give its employees better health care? Then Wal-Mart wouldn't need a war room. The money that the company is spending on its image should be spent to do the right thing. Doesn't Wal-Mart see that?

One can agree with Cato Institute economist Brink Lindsey, who, in an interview with PBS, said:

Wal-Mart is doing what the American economy is all about, which is producing things consumers want to buy … offering consumers a wide range of goods at rock-bottom prices. It is meeting the market test.

And still disagree that "Wal-Mart is good for America," as he goes on to say. It's clear the company has undermined the original philosophy that served as the bedrock for its humble Bentonville origins, which predicated the store's success not just on its famed "every-day low prices," but also on an understanding that happy employees make happy customers, and an underlying culture of entrepreneurialism that perhaps has been diluted in its exponential expansion.

James K. Galbraith argues that expanding homeownership is a good and proper policy route for helping working families to increase wealth. George Fredrickson made a similar point in a recent New York Review of Books essay, "Still Separate and Unequal," where he discussed the vast wealth gap between white and black Americans, and argued that historical disparities in homeownership were to blame:

How did this vast inequality come about? It was mainly the result of the greater white access to home mortgages that were insured and subsidized by the federal government. Before the 1930s a home buyer had to put down 50 percent of a house's price and could get only a relatively short-term mortgage, perhaps only ten years. By the 1950s, as a result of a series of federal housing programs, including the GI Bill, most Americans could get long- term mortgages—up to thirty years— with a down payment as low as 10 percent. By 1984 seven out of ten whites owned their own homes, worth on average $52,000. But only one in four blacks owned a home, worth, on average, less than $30,000. ...

The advantages of whites over blacks ... were more characteristically Northern than Southern; they manifested themselves in the growth of virtually all-white suburbs outside the major cities and virtually all-black ghettos within them. This new form of racial segregation was not simply the product of private choices, among them the refusal of white home-owners to sell to blacks, blockbusting and the racial "steering" of home buyers by real estate agents, and the personal prejudice of bankers asked to approve loans for blacks.

The urban segregation that has contributed so much to the persistence of black inequality came about in large part because between the 1930s and the 1970s federal housing agencies refused to approve mortgage loans in neighborhoods that were "redlined," which meant property values were deemed uncertain because of the presence of blacks.True enough. All the same, modern-day housing policy to correct this imbalance sometimes seems pretty painfully misguided. The Bush administration, like its more liberal predecessor, has made a point of offering subsidized mortgages to low-income and especially minority families, which is a great idea in theory, as Galbraith's and Frederickson's pieces might suggest. But so long as homes remain unaffordable for 80 percent of all renters, including 21 million renters who couldn't get mortgages under even the loosest of underwriting standards, these sorts of policies will only go so far.

Lower-income families that can afford homes, meanwhile, often end up with units in need of costly repairs or are located in poor neighborhoods plagued by crime and unemployment. Not the best way to create wealth, obviously, or reduce the inequality and segregation Frederickson's talking about. In Baltimore a few years ago, reporters discovered that homes basically falling apart were being "patched up" and sold to low-income families at inflated prices. In the South, 40 percent of low-income home-buyers were steered into trailer parks on leased land. Not to mention the fact that extending homeowner credit to low-income and/or minority neighborhoods usually opens the door to predatory lenders to walk on in.

Plus, it's not even clear that owning a home is always a fantastic wealth-enhancing strategy for low-income families. It's true that the median wealth of low-income homeowners is 12 times that of renters with similar incomes, and most of that comes from the home. But renters and owners tend to be very different people to begin with, at different stages of the life cycle, in different financial situations. How "good" of an investment owning a home is often depends on when an owner enters the market, how long it holds the property, local market conditions, etc. On the downside, some low-income families who buy a home can quickly find themselves assailed with all sorts of costs—insurance costs, property taxes, utility bills—and often borrow against the equity of their home in a financial pinch, erasing any wealth.

That's not to say Galbraith or Frederickson are on the wrong track; clearly they know what they're talking about. Still, we hear about policies to promote homeownership—from both parties—as a strategy for helping working families, but they deserve far more scrutiny. It's troubling, for instance, that the percent of mortgage loans that end in foreclosure have risen from 1.24 in the 1990s to 1.46 these days—a potential sign that people are being steered into homes before they're ready. A proper housing policy, perhaps, would increase the stock of affordable housing and help out low-income renters until they're ready to own a home. What we have now, unfortunately, is a national housing policy primarily intended to benefit lenders—who, these days, depend on sub-prime loans to low-income families for profits—while slashing rental-assistance programs like Section 8.

Did Texas Just Ban Marriage?

HJR No. 6 passed in Texas yesterday, supposedly to ban gay marriage. But read the text closely.

Sec. 32
(a) Marriage in this state shall consist only of the union of one man and one woman.
(b) This state or a political subdivision of this state may not create or recognize any legal status identical or similar to marriage.

Is it egg-heady coastal elitism to point out that Texas just defined marriage and then made it illegal for everybody, even heteros? I wonder if "family values" include literacy.

Much of the debris left behind in Louisiana by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita is familiar to Louisiana citizens, for it is the detritus of a system that relies on pork, patronage, and power plays. When the Louisiana Bond Commission met several weeks ago, it performed the shocking act of doing nothing to change its pre-Katrina plans. Every item that had been earmarked before August 29, including $4 million for the Morehouse Parish Equine Center, the proposal that drew the most negative response from both the local and national press. State Treasurer John Kennedy requested line-item approval of the Bond Commission's work, but when the commission met a second time, its members voted to make no changes.

Governor Kathleen Blanco has done the most annoying thing a governor can do to the state legislature--and it is something no governor has ever before dared to do--she announced the elimination of the legislators' $11 million worth of slush funds. These funds, the source of annual power struggles in the state, are the goody funds legislators use to get pet projects for their districts, and they are considered sacred. Complaints are mounting over Blanco's decision. The governor has also announced intended cuts in every department except for the legislative and judiciary departments, but those may also fall to the cutting ax before the current legislative session is over.

To outsiders--and even to many within the state--it was startling to hear Blanco demand that legislators making money off of post-hurricane relief must disclose their income. Though it appears to most of us to be inappropriate for them to be earning any income from relief efforts in the first place, it is safe to say that if the governor were to prohibit such schemes, her plans for Louisiana would be shut down by powerful state senators and representatives. She is boxed in by a system that has been in place for generations. Some of us were hoping she would put her foot down, anyway, but that isn't going to happen.

Political experts in Louisiana say that legislators in districts not directly affected by Katrina and Rita simply are not concerned with the immense social and economic damage done by the storms, and are interested only in what they can get for their own districts. Katrina and Rita directly affected parishes in southeast and southwest Louisiana, but central and northern parishes did not experience any storm damage. Of course, if the New Orleans economy and the economies of surrounding parishes are permanently destroyed, there goes the Port, the Superdome, a huge tourism industry, what had become a rapidly growing film industry, the state's oil and gas business, and the Louisiana seafood industry.

Before the two hurricanes brought an unprecedented crisis to Louisiana, the state was already dealing with crises in its healthcare and educational systems, as well as several environmental crises. Blanco's team and the state government had massive tasks set before them, and Louisianians were skeptical about solutions. Now there is reason for even more skepticism, as these crucial matters are displaced by the issue of immediate economic recovery, and the state's lawmakers exhibit near-blindness in their vision.

Dover Evolves

One small, but nonetheless sweet victory for people who acknowledge the virtues of empiricism: the Dover, PA, school board was thrown out of office by the town's voters. These are the folks who decided to join with the Thomas More Law Center to force a landmark test case in the hopes of establishing "intelligent design"—widely viewed as a stalking horse for biblically-based creationism—as constitutionally permissible classroom instruction.

Today at Mother Jones:

Mark LeVine sees in the French riots "a microcosm of the larger struggles of integrate into a globalized order from which they have been marginalized for decades, even centuries." (LINK)

Andrew Testa, in a stunning photo essay, portrays Thailand's sea gypsies, who outsmarted the tsunami but could be swept away by an even greater force--modernity. (LINK)

Jack Hitt confers the Aaron Burr Award for Constitutional Devotion on...Tom DeLay? Rick Santorum? (LINK)

Bill Hogan introduces Dr. Gilbert Ross, onetime jailbird and now America's most aggressive debunker of legitimate scientific research. (LINK)

Clint Hendler warns of Republican attempts to weaken the Endangered Species Act. (LINK)

Our Least Green Congressman

There are lots of representatives with low marks on environmental issues. But based on a string of recent high-profile actions and missteps, Richard Pombo seems to have developed a special talent for raising the ire of environmentalists.

The California Republican is perhaps best known for the drastic changes to the Endangered Species Act he pushed through the House this Fall, changes friendly to industry groups. (And while we're on the subject, you may want to check out my recently-posted article about one of the bill's key provisions. It would have merely enshrined an earlier, little-noted rule change by the Bush Administration which already, in certain cases, ended oversight of federal projects by the government's endangered species experts.)

Pombo, who chairs the House Resources committee, has also came under fire for recommending that the National Park Service auction off, and thereby privatize, 15 sites. The Center for Public Integrity recently determined that the Congressmen owed taxes on two trips sponsored by a foundation with "highly unusual" management and financial procedures—and funding ties to pro-whaling and fur trade groups.

And today comes a report, from the Environmental Working Group, that Pombo has slipped a line into the House's budget reconciliation bill that would reverse a Clinton-era ban on selling over 350 million acres of public lands to miners, oil drillers and loggers. So far the provision hasn't gotten much attention—and if there ever was an example of falling for blatant-spin, it's this Reuters wire containing the news, entitled "Republican wants to help poor gather firewood." Talk about burying the lede.