Political MoJo

Whatever happened at the Superdome and the Convention Center, it wasn't nearly as bad as we were led to believe

| Mon Sep. 26, 2005 6:46 PM EDT

When a FEMA doctor finally arrived at the Louisiana Superdome with a refrigerated 18-wheeler to begin counting and collecting the estimated two hundred bodies, he was surprised to find only six. Of those, four had died of natural causes, one had overdosed, and one had committed suicide. Four other bodies were found outside the Dome. According to both Louisiana National Guard Col. Thomas Beron and officials of the state's Health and Human Services Department, no one was killed.

There were also supposed to be corpses piled inside the Ernest Morial Convention Center, but only four bodies were found there. One of those did indeed appear to have been killed. The Louisiana Health and Human Services Department did repeated searches of both facilities because of the rampant reports that a kind of war had broken out in them, but no one ever found any proof that anything of the kind had happened.

The rumor mill got an exceptionally powerful grind when both New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and New Orleans Chief of Police Eddie Compass told Oprah Winfrey that "hundreds of armed gang members" were inside the Superdome, and that countless bodies lay dead on the floor. Police Chief Compass changed his story from day to day. He told one reporter that the police confiscated thirty weapons from criminals; he told another reporter that the police recovered no weapons.

There was a lot of looting at the Convention Center, and gunfire was heard. It is hard to sort out truth from rumor, and we will never know exactly what took place. What is known is that the National Guard met no resistance when it took control of the facility. Lt. Col. John Edwards of the Arkansas National Guard, said the Guard received no hostility when it entered the building, and in fact, were welcomed by cheering.

Reports of rapes and armed robberies are the hardest to corroborate, according to both Guard officials and others who were there. So many witnesses have come forward to describe what they saw, it seems almost certain that some children were raped. One child molester followed the crowd from the Superdome to the Convention Center, and evacuees told authorities that they were prepared to deal with him if the Guard didn't.

The mainstream news media has been slow to acknowledge that the multiple shootings and rapes were just rumors, and that there were no piles of dead bodies on the Convention Center floor. The image of desperate savages murdering each other as flood waters raged around them is one that easily feeds the hatred that many Americans have of the poor, and especially poor people of color.

One thing is certain. As Louisiana National Guard Lt. Col. Jacques Thibodeaux reported: Both infants and the elderly were close to death, with no food or water, living in filth--a scene that Thibodeaux said shocked soldiers more than anything they had seen in combat zones.

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Following the Administration Exiles

| Mon Sep. 26, 2005 5:48 PM EDT

According to the Financial Times, Paul Wolfowitz isn't sending in the World Banks tank divisions to conquer Third World countries after all, as many feared, and in fact, he's become quite the feminist:

An important part of this agenda is a focus on what the bank can do to help empower women in developing countries. Education and healthcare will remain priorities for the bank, but Wolfowitz is likely to focus its efforts on girls and women. "The role of women is something that has hit me very hard pretty much since my time in Indonesia, where you have a reasonably liberated female population in a predominantly Muslim country. And you can see that the country as a whole is the better off for it... It seems to me that it is an almost arithmetic equation that if half of the population is held back, then your development is going to be held back."

Bank insiders say his thinking on this issue may have been influenced by Shaha Riza, a bank employee, Middle East expert and specialist on gender issues, with whom the divorced Wolfowitz has had a relationship for the past couple of years. "I have sympathy for someone who says that the Swedish model or the American model of relatively far-advanced feminism is not necessarily something that even women of other countries want," he says. "But there is a point at which it is more than just a cultural thing and that is a fundamental violation of human rights and a fundamental denial of equality of opportunity, and when you do deny equal opportunity you are trying to run a race with one leg tied, sort of. And often your best leg."

Maybe he could start by having a word with Pakistani president Perez Musharraf.

Interestingly, the FT story claims that Wolfowitz could have had the position of UN Ambassador if he had wanted it. Oddly enough, I can't think of two people more different in temperament than Wolfowitz and the guy who eventually got the job, John Bolton. At the very least, the former actually believes that international institutions can be useful; the latter, for all intents and purposes, does not. But that just lends credence to the theory that Bolton got kicked over to the UN not because the Bush administration wanted someone to tear down the institution, but just because Condoleeza Rice wanted him out of the State Department. At any rate, Bolton seems to be behaving himself at the UN…

What Conflicts of Interest?

| Mon Sep. 26, 2005 3:34 PM EDT

This New York Times story on the budding Bill Frist stock scandal covers most of the main points (also, see ThinkProgress for a damning timeline), but this bit jumped out at me:

Though choosing to create a blind trust might help candidates politically, ethics rules do not require one. Many other government officials and members of Congress own or even trade stocks directly.

Really? On some level, this doesn't much matter—it's not like the fact that Frist owned HCA stock made his already-slavish devotion to the health care industry somehow more slavish. Still, you can see how it might create problems.

Posse Comitatus Confusion

| Mon Sep. 26, 2005 3:05 PM EDT

This doesn't seem like good news, from the Washington Times:

President Bush yesterday said he wants Congress to consider putting the Pentagon, not state and local agencies, in charge of responding to large natural disasters in the future….

That would require a change of law, since the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 forbids the military from performing civilian law enforcement duties. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is investigating possible reforms to the act, which Pentagon officials consider archaic. …

[C]ritics are already warning against repeal of Posse Comitatus. "Washington seems poised to embrace further centralization and militarization at home," cautioned Gene Healy, senior editor at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. "That has the makings of a policy disaster that would dwarf Hurricane Katrina."

The main thing of it is, none of this is necessary. As William Arkin reports, Pentagon documents make it perfectly clear that the military already "can provide support to civil authorities, and even act as a lead agency in the face of a breakdown of civil command and control…. in accordance with the National Response Plan and current law." The swift military response to Hurricane Rita proves that, with a decent amount of preparation, the Defense Department has the ability natural disasters on the homeland.

Basically, the Washington Times gets it wrong, the Posse Comitatus Act doesn't really restrict what the military can do in the event of a breakdown of local and state authority, it mainly just subordinates the military to civilian control. Nor does it tie the president's hands. So either Bush isn't planning to propose anything new here, and mainly just wants to shift blame for the response to Katrina away from his administration and towards state and local governments—in other words, this is all for show—or else he's proposing to do something that is entirely unnecessary and really, really unwise. Say it again: Katrina was a catastrophe because Bush screwed up, not because the military lacked operational flexibility in the homeland.

The Eligibility Hurdle

| Mon Sep. 26, 2005 1:59 PM EDT

A new analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out that due to the complex rules and regulations concerning eligibility for Medicaid, many people left uninsured by Katrina cannot get much-needed health insurance. That's a good point, although this isn't an issue restricted to Katrina. Medicaid's eligibility rules always pose something of a problem: Low-income mothers and children often qualify for Medicaid, but low-income fathers usually don't, despite the fact that fathers with low incomes can get sick and need treatment just like anyone else. Meanwhile, the eligibility rules are so intricate that many families often don't know that they're eligible even when they are. Obviously states trying to keep costs down and Medicaid rolls as small as possible have every incentive to make this all very confusing, but it has real costs for people, and it would be nice if Katrina focused more attention on this larger problem.

Not Going for Broke?

| Mon Sep. 26, 2005 1:23 PM EDT

In the Boston Globe on Sunday, Joan Vennochi suggested, like many others have suggested, that Democrats refrained from embracing this weekend's antiwar rallies because they're "[f]earful of the peacenik label." Is that true? Perhaps top Senate Democrats like Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton genuinely believe that pulling out of Iraq sooner rather than later, or setting timetables for withdrawal, amounts to bad strategy. But maybe not; maybe they really do agree with the antiwar protestors and want to get out of Iraq, by setting timetables and the lot. If that's the case, fear of the "peacenik label" seems wholly misguided.

Right now, congressional Democrats are, in all likelihood, nowhere near regaining power—something that many people are still in denial about. Yes, the succession of GOP scandals, the Social Security victory, and Bush's second-term malaise have apparently given them hope for a stunning upset come next midterms. On the other hand, looking at the actual lay of the land deflates this hope pretty quickly. The House will probably stay in Republican hands until at least the next census in 2010—that's the power of gerrymandering for you—and, as Chuck Todd of the National Journal points out, the Senate landscape doesn't look much better for the Democrats. Under the circumstances, then, things really can't get that much worse for the minority party. They really do have nothing left to lose—so why aren't they acting like it? One would assume that this is that long-awaited opportunity for the liberal party to go all out and take actual risks: seeing if they can't rally the country around antiwar sentiment and finally exorcise the ghost of George McGovern; figuring out how to make the case that judges like John Roberts are unacceptable; figuring out how to convince the electorate of the necessity of raising taxes to pay for the big government it obviously wants. (A necessity admitted by responsible Republicans like Bruce Bartlett.) A time to experiment, not to act overly cautious.

Perhaps Democrats worry about losing even more seats if they overreach, at which point they couldn't mount a filibuster against truly unacceptable legislation. But given the fact that the GOP has threatened on several occasions to abolish the filibuster anyway, this seems like a moot point. Democrats are still acting as if majority status is right around the corner. Given the fact that, nationwide, more people voted Democratic in Senate races than Republican over the past six years, that's not a bad sentiment, but realistically, it's a delusion.

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FEMA is doing its best, but those Louisianians sure are whiny and ungrateful

| Fri Sep. 23, 2005 8:52 AM EDT

There is an email meme going around about a "true story" of a doctor who went to the New Orleans Convention Center to help Katrina victims, and was assaulted and insulted by angry, complaining, foul-mouthed people who should have been grateful to see him.

In fact, there is no such doctor. He doesn't exist. The email's melodramatic content is easily accepted by people who want to believe that New Orleans' poor (read "black people") are spoiled welfare brats who starve their children in order to have satellite television. Empowered by Reagan's "welfare queen" rhetoric, those who hate both people of color and the poor are having a field day with the aftermath of Katrina.

Unfortunately, Louisiana's reputation for corruption and political chicanery makes it even easier to attack New Orleans during a crisis. People are justifiably worried about what kind of new chaos the state will put itself into in the wake of such a terrible catastrophe. I live in Louisiana, and I certainly do not trust some of the state's more ignorant and backward citizens (better known as the legislature) to create sensible solutions to our new problems. But the people who were too poor, too sick, and too disabled to get out of the city when the storm approached have become the very unfortunate symbol of deeply held racial bigotry.

Good news or bad--the contempt is now spreading to white people. Last night, in a sucession of phone calls to our temporary post-hurricane radio channel, people expressed displeasure at how Louisianians cannot do anything but complain, complain, complain about FEMA. "They're doing the best they can," "All you people in south Louisiana can say is 'give me, give me'," "People in Louisiana are just greedy."

The fact of the matter is that FEMA is still doing practically nothing at all; the personnel changes have meant little to hurricane victims. People who returned to their houses are being told that they cannot get money because they were "not displaced," grants have suddenly become loans, the agency has failed to show up at community meetings (and in one case, sent a Texas contractor who kept people in line for hours filling out applications that were invalid and had to be trashed), promised FEMA money was never sent to desperate Plaquemines Parish, and the Blue Roof program has made it next to impossible for many people to get their leaking roofs covered.

Obviously, someone in Washington is busy creating these "lazy black people" and "whiny white people" memes. I don't know who it is, but the whole project certainly has Karen Hughes' imprint all over it. This was the tactic Hughes used to smear Governor Ann Richards during the Texas gubernatorial election, and I have long suspected that Karl Rove has gotten a lot of credit for dirty work that is really more Hughes' style.

Many of the citizens of southeast Louisiana who still have their houses are nevertheless at their wits' end, with moldy walls, leaky roofs, no electricity, no jobs, no phones, and no way to get help. Attempts to cover up the massive failures of the federal government by blaming the victims is beyond shameful.

Immigration and Poverty

| Thu Sep. 22, 2005 8:35 PM EDT

In the Washington Post the other day, Robert Samuelson took liberals to task for misunderstanding the nature of poverty in America:

But the overall poverty rate is misleading. True, poverty has been stuck for non-Hispanic whites, though it's fairly low. Since the late 1970s, it's generally fluctuated between 8 percent and 9 percent, depending on the economy. But poverty among blacks -- though still appallingly high -- has declined sharply. In 2004 it was 24.7 percent, down from 33.1 percent in 1993, though up from 22.5 percent in 2000. As recently as 1983, it was 35.7 percent.

The dramatic improvement may reflect the 1990s' economic boom. Or it could stem from the 1996 welfare reform, which restricted benefits and imposed tougher work requirements. … Given these trends, the overall poverty rate should be drifting down. It isn't. The main reason, as I've written before, is immigration. We have uncontrolled entry of poor, unskilled workers across our southern border. Although many succeed, many don't, and many poor Latino immigrants have children, who are also poor. In 2004, 25 percent of the poverty population was Hispanic, up from 12 percent in 1980. Over this period, Hispanics represented almost three-quarters of the increase in the poverty population.

Now as it happens, I think we can and should do more about poverty among unskilled immigrants, and can do much more about poverty in Latin America. But that's an argument for another time. Samuelson makes a fair point here that doesn't get much press, and I've tried searching for studies that address his argument—namely, that the increasing poverty rates in the United States are pretty much due to immigration—but virtually no one seems up to the task. A Google trawl mostly turns up sites like VDare and CIS, both of which, obviously, support the "immigration causes poverty" thesis.

Ah, but here we go. This old EPI study looks at the 1990s, when, despite a white-hot economy, the poverty rate fell less than one measly percentage point during the decade, and the disappointing result was blamed on immigration by the media. EPI dissented, noting that immigrant family incomes actually rose faster than native family incomes, and this increase was substantial enough to offset the increase in the share of the immigrant population. Meanwhile, the study looked at New York and California and found that, even if you exclude immigrant data, neither state saw a significant reduction in poverty during the 1990s. So those stagnant wages and stubborn poverty rates we hear so much about weren't just due to "uncontrolled entry of poor, unskilled workers across our southern border," then.

To EPI's argument, I'd add that if we get out our fine-tooth combs and look at the state-level data, we can see that, for instance, the poverty rate actually fell in California between 1998 and 2003, but rose dramatically in, say, South Carolina or Mississippi—not places we would consider immigration hotbeds. (You can find data on who's immigrating where here.) So it's not clear that everyone's doing better these days except the immigrants who were already poor anyway, as Samuelson would have it.

And regardless, Samuelson's column is sort of changing the subject here. Even if Hispanic immigration is mostly responsible for the increase in poverty, that's no excuse for getting complacent about the stagnant white poverty rate, which hovers around 8-9 percent, and by itself is higher than total poverty rates in many EU15 countries. Figure that one out. It's also no reason to get complacent about the African-American poverty rate, which is indeed "appallingly high," and has been rising over the past few years, during a supposed economic boom, after falling dramatically during the 1990s. (By the way, the African-American poverty rate dropped at roughly the same rate between 1993 and 1996 as it did between 1996 and 1999, so I'd question Samuelson's suggestion that it was due to welfare reform.) Really, it's not like the non-immigration component to poverty in the U.S. is anything to brag about. For that, the tired old explanations—stagnant wages, meager safety net—still seem to apply.

Where's the Boat-Rocking?

| Thu Sep. 22, 2005 5:38 PM EDT

In the New Republic today, Clay Risen argues that Chris Cox, the new SEC chairman who recently replaced Bill Donaldson, may not be as business-friendly as many—including the free-market folks who leaned on Bush to oust Donaldson—had hoped:

One of the business community's biggest beefs with Sarbanes-Oxley--and Donaldson--was its cost to small businesses, which have to pay proportionally more than larger firms to meet new regulatory requirements. Donaldson refused to create a small-business exemption, and his opponents had hoped that Cox would be different. No such luck. "There have been amply expressed concerns about the costs," he recently told The Wall Street Journal. "No one should think that the law will not apply. Of course it will. It's simply a matter of how." True, that last sentence still leaves Cox room to create looser requirements for small businesses; but, then, Donaldson was willing to consider the same thing.

In the Journal interview, Cox also said that he would not back down on monetary fines against corporate wrongdoers. Many in the business lobby--as well as SEC Commissioner Paul Atkins--have serious philosophical objections to such fines, arguing that corporate crime is usually the result of a few "bad apples" and that such fines penalize innocent employees and shareholders. But reformers, Donaldson included, believe that fines are often necessary because such crime is also the product of malignant corporate cultures and because they are the only way to deter future wrongdoing. Cox, though cognizant of the dissent, appears to agree with his predecessor. "[P]enalties are meant to exact justice in the specific case and also to provide a measure of deterrence against future offenses ... the law needs to be applied to mete out justice," he told the Journal.

This jibes with a lot of what various industry insiders were saying when Cox was first appointed. For instance:

"There may be some rethinking of [the rules,]" says David Ruder, a former SEC chairman and professor of law at Northwestern University. "[But] the reasons that led the Commission to adopting those rules are quite real. Once [Cox] understands the potential for conflicts of interest in that industry, he will want to go quite slowly in reversing protections that have already been adopted."

On the other hand, maybe Cox really does intend to rock the whole boat and move towards deregulation, but has decided to take a guarded stance for now. That would make sense—after all, he's something of a political liability for the White House, and the Republican Party, if an Enron-style corporate regulation breaks in the next few years. (It would be one thing if a scandal happened on Donaldson's watch; quite another if it happened after the Bush administration ousted a reformist chairman and installed a business-friendly ally.) Ultimately, as Risen notes, we won't know whether Cox wants to steer the SEC towards a more deregulatory stance until he starts appointing various department-head positions. Granted, liberals ought to be ecstatic if Cox—and by extension, the Bush administration—ultimately takes a more responsible stance on corporate regulation than Bill Clinton and Robert Rubin did, but let's wait to see if it actually happens.

Selective Welfare

| Thu Sep. 22, 2005 3:07 PM EDT

Looking more closely at the massive budget cuts proposed by the Republican Study Committee more closely, the "best" part comes in Title IV, when it comes time to cut corporate welfare. A decent chunk of the cuts come from repealing the Applied Research for Renewable Energy Sources Program, the Hydrogen Fuel Initiative Program, the Clean Coal Technology Program, and the FreedomCAR Program. All reasonable government programs to promote renewable energy—the sort of thing we need more, not less, of. But never mind that. The sum of these cuts runs to less than $1 billion. Meanwhile, of course, the $2.6 billion worth of recently-passed subsidies to oil and gas companies—"to encourage domestic oil and gas production"—went untouched.