Political MoJo

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

There is an email meme going around about a "true story" of a doctor who went to the New Orleans...

| Fri Sep. 23, 2005 9:52 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.

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Immigration and Poverty

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

| Thu Sep. 22, 2005 9:35 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?

In the New Republic today, Clay Risen argues that Chris Cox, the new SEC chairman who recently replaced Bill Donaldson,...

| Thu Sep. 22, 2005 6:38 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

Looking more closely at the massive budget cuts proposed by the Republican Study Committee more closely, the "best" part comes...

| Thu Sep. 22, 2005 4:07 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.

On the Backs of the Poor

Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has a statement about the cuts that fiscal conservatives in...

| Thu Sep. 22, 2005 2:34 PM EDT

Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has a statement about the cuts that fiscal conservatives in the Republican Study Committee have proposed in order to pay for Katrina reconstruction:

In particular, these proposals would place much of the burden of Katrina relief and deficit reduction on the backs of our nation's poor, seniors, and people with disabilities, as well as on poor people in other countries through cuts in U.S. programs designed to combat global poverty and AIDS.

Indeed, the GOP plans to save a lot of money by slashing Medicaid, at a time when the program is more important than ever for providing health insurance to those who lose their coverage at work. Oh, and they'd like to slash foreign aid. Naturally, they title the report "tough choices in tough times." Democrats and liberals, meanwhile, haven't provided much in the way of alternatives, as far as I can tell (besides Nancy Pelosi's noble-but-insignificant offer to sacrifice San Francisco pork). Perhaps they all think that James K. Galbraith has it right and deficits don't really matter. Really, though, it's easy to close the deficit—or at the very least, paying for Katrina—by rolling back Bush's tax cuts and going after waste and fraud in the Pentagon, or useless military programs. A GAO report out today "found many inaccuracies [in Defense Department spending] totaling billions of dollars." That seems far more worthwhile than gutting health care for low-income families. Defense spending, however, makes up the smallest of the cuts proposed by the Study Committee.

UPDATE: The Center for American Progress has its own proposal for trimming the budget. Not all of this is realistic, of course, just as the Republican proposal isn't politically realistic. But in the abstract, it's far more sensible.

What Racism, Where?

Digby has two important posts on race, Republicans, and politics in America that deserve a read. No, this stuff has...

| Thu Sep. 22, 2005 1:58 PM EDT

Digby has two important posts on race, Republicans, and politics in America that deserve a read. No, this stuff has never really gone away, and Digby's characterization seems right to me: "Bush may not personally be a racist, I have no way of knowing what's 'in his heart.' But he is quite well aware of the fact that all the racists in the country who voted, voted for him." Aware now more than ever, perhaps, after Bush's post-Katrina speech—in which he promised, at least nominally, the biggest poverty-spending in a generation and acknowledged that America's legacy of racism has contributed to black poverty—ended up winning over precisely zero liberals and alienated a bunch of Republicans. See, for instance, this Rasmussen poll:

Following the speech, the President's rating for handling the Katrina crisis fell eight points among Republicans (from 71% good or excellent to 63%). The President also draws good or excellent marks from 11% of Democrats and 31% of those not affiliated with either major political party.

Uh-oh. Now maybe that 8 percent drop among Republicans was due to Bush alienating those mythical "fiscal conservatives" holed up somewhere in New Hampshire and Arizona, but I doubt it. If fiscal conservatives weren't appalled by Bush before the speech, they never will be. More likely, the drop came among what Stanley Greenberg likes to call the "Fuck-You Boys" and "Fuck-You Old Men": white, often working-class Republicans who enjoy their social programs as much as anyone else—people who would probably enjoy a Scandinavian socialist state, all else equal—but draw the line when government spending starts going towards "those people." These are voters who can stomach a bit of tokenism among Bush's cabinet appointments, but draw the line at shoveling out $200 billion for black New Orleaners. I don't think these voters just exist in the south—nor do I think they're the only closet racists in the country—but any analysis of politics in the south, or inquiries into why the United States doesn't have a welfare state, needs to start here, with this bloc.

As far as Republicans are concerned, I'm perfectly willing to believe that a number of Republicans aren't actually racist personally. Oh sure, exceptions abound. Trent Lott's paean to Strom Thurmond, or his amicus brief for Bob Jones University, or his involvement in the neo-Confederate movement, speaks for itself. Nor does it take much to conclude that Jeff Sessions of Alabama doesn't much like black people. But set them aside. What seems even more common are Republicans who are perfectly willing to benefit politically from racism, consciously or not. Sometimes the liberal search for "code words" and "code phrases" among Republicans pursuing supposed "Southern strategies" and the like can seem a bit strained. But the overall pattern just isn't hard to spot. George Bush's trip to Bob Jones University had a very clear purpose. The Rove-inspired push polls over John McCain's adopted daughter had a very clear purpose. To pretend that Bush's team of veteran campaigners, who cut their teeth on races in the Deep South, was completely oblivious to the signals these moves send is insane.

The list goes on. You have Bill Frist's 1994 stump speech line during his Senate run, "While I've been transplanting lungs and hearts to heal Tennesseans, [my opponent] Jim Sasser has been transplanting Tennesseans' wallets to Washington, home of Marion Barry." I wouldn't ever defend Barry, but what a black mayor in D.C. actually had to do with Tennessee politics isn't entirely clear. Just last fall, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma ran a campaign ad against his Democratic opponent that showed Hispanics and "black hands" receiving welfare checks. In every instance, the method is the same: don't go too overt on the racism, because no one likes that, but subtly appeal to whites who resent those blacks who "drain the public resources," and play up stereotypes. By itself, racial priming of this sort obviously doesn't decide political races; Coburn had an overwhelming advantage regardless. But they do matter. Just look at the poll data.

Crucially, I don't want to suggest that only southern Republicans benefit from racism in this way. Many of the attacks on outsourcing to India and whatnot, even among Democrats, benefit from a similar sort of nativism, regardless of the economic merits in these arguments. Racial politics played an ugly role in the 2001 mayoral primaries in New York City. Governors like Pete Wilson and Jim Edgar came to power in 1994 by running "tough on crime" ads with blurry images of gun-toting African-American rapists. Not surprisingly, race doesn't affect every political campaign—even in the South—in the exact same way. Usually it varies district by district, depending on the racial makeup. I think James Glaser, in The Hand of the Past in Contemporary Southern Politics, described the dynamic well:

The fundamental dynamic of southern politics, a racial dynamic, still holds, however. The process of who gets what, when, and how still must take place between majority whites and a large black minority, and this is the stuff of politics… It is not about candidates being unable to escape the shackles of virulent racism, though some certainly may be constrained by their racial attitudes. The argument here is that the racial balance of a district is determinative of so much of the campaign. The story of Delbert Hosemann is instructive. Here was a white man who had given enormously to the black community, and not from a sense of obligation or for political gain. But as a Republican candidate, he could think of blacks only as "not my people," and savvy as he was, he recognized that there were no circumstances under which he could make headway into the black community.

That, I think, is mostly what people are dealing with: political constraints superimposed on America's long and over-determined history of race. On the congressional level, for Republicans in southern districts with a sizeable Africa-American population, the only way to win is to turn-out the white voters, the "fuck-you boys," and you do that however you can. In districts with fewer black voters, this becomes less important—again, see Glaser's Race, Campaign Politics, and the Realignment in the South. Similarly, Democrats rely heavily on racial appeals in majority-black districts, although I think this is qualitatively different. In some sense, these dynamics aren't as consciously malevolent as some might assume. But that doesn't mean they don't exist.

Today, of course, the South continues to dominate American politics, and a very large number of important Senators and members of Congress get elected by mastering these racial dynamics—and are, as Glaser says, "constrained" by them. That in turn determines the course of national policy to a large degree. Bush is quickly finding that he can't just lurch to the mushy center and advocate $200 billion in welfare for a predominantly black city without alienating a good chunk of his base. Until now, the GOP's big-government conservatism has succeeded by remaining the sort of big-government conservatism the "Fuck You Boys" and "Fuck You Old Men" like to see: lots of spending on the military and drugs for middle-class white seniors, while slashing food stamps and housing vouchers—since we all "know" where those go. (They go, of course, mostly to poor whites, but myths die hard.) To imagine race has nothing to do with any of this seems, I think, pretty ludicrous.

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New at Mother Jones

Why Immediate Withdrawal Makes Sense By Michael Schwartz The US is part of the problem in Iraq, not part of...

| Thu Sep. 22, 2005 1:54 PM EDT

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Kan Do Karl!
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For all your reconstruction needs!

Katrina and Deficits: Right Topic, Wrong Questions
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What about the much worse fiscal damage done by Bush's economic policies?

NYC, meet IRV
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More Blood, Less Oil
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Gonzales to the Court? Doubtful.

Reading Elizabeth Bumiller's latest about how the Bush administration is gunning for diversity in its next Supreme Court pick reminds...

| Wed Sep. 21, 2005 11:24 PM EDT

Reading Elizabeth Bumiller's latest about how the Bush administration is gunning for diversity in its next Supreme Court pick reminds me of a question I've been meaning to ask: Even setting the much-discussed abortion angle aside, wouldn't an Alberto Gonzales appointment cause serious, serious hassles for the administration? The Court, after all, will soon be hearing various cases concerning the president's wartime authority, like, for instance, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld—on whether the Geneva Conventions apply to suspected terrorists, on what sort of military commissions can try those suspects, etc. Roberts, as we know, didn't recuse himself from the D.C. Circuit Court's decision on this case (in favor of the administration) in July, which he probably should have done, but he'd certainly have to recuse himself, I assume, from the Supreme Court rematch. As would Gonzales, for obvious reasons.

Um, so that leaves a key case concerning Bush's "wartime" authority in the hands of Souter, Breyer, Ginsburg, and Stevens. Is that really something this administration would let happen? Perhaps, but it seems very, very unlikely.

Levees designed to protect New Orleans from imaginary hurricanes, not real ones

After Hurricane Betsy ravaged New Orleans in 1965, the city fortified itself with levees that could supposedly offer protection for...

| Wed Sep. 21, 2005 8:11 PM EDT

After Hurricane Betsy ravaged New Orleans in 1965, the city fortified itself with levees that could supposedly offer protection for a storm of up to a Category 3 strength, and then only a fast-moving Category 3. As more and more of Louisiana's coastline disappeared over the years, it became obvious to anyone who lived in New Orleans that what may have worked in 1965 was quite likely to be useless.

Indeed, the system may have been only minimally useful when it was created. That is because some areas have always been more vulnerable to hurricane storm surges, and because the levees were not designed as they should have been.

"They really need to re-analyze how to rehabilitate the levees using a current risk-based analysis. That can be easily done, that's what needs to be done. They really have to take all the calculations and weave that into a new design," says Lee Butler, an engineering consultant and former Army Corps of Engineers computer analyst.

The Corps based its design on a "standard hurricane project," which was based on wind strength and not storm surge, which is New Orleans' biggest hurricane problem. But in order to adequately re-build the levee system, Congress will have to change its design criteria. Under current law, there are no allowances for geographical and storm variations. It is easy to assume that a Category 3 storm is more dangerous to the city than a Category 1, but when flooding is the key factor, no such assumption can really be made.

According to Butler, "the storm category characterization is too simplistic. It's as simplistic as the color code for terrorism alerts." Those who live in New Orleans' lower 9th Ward and in St. Bernard Parish know that their neighborhoods will always flood more than other parts of the city. Those neighborhoods have a 1 in 200 chance of flooding from storm surge in a given year, as opposed to the West Bank of Jefferson Parish, for example, which has a 1 in 500 chance. And when levees come together in a "v" shape, the chance for flooding is even higher. And like interest in a bank account, the chances of flooding in a vulnerable area grow exponentially over the decades.

Scientists and engineers at Louisiana State University's Hurricane Center have taken issue with the Corps of Engineers' explanation that Hurricane Katrina's storm surge broke the 17th Street Canal levees. They maintain that Katrina's surges didn't come close to toppling the barriers, meaning that either flawed design or inadequate construction was to blame for the breaches. Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the Hurricane Center, says that the floodwall slabs should have been interlocked, and that the canals they were intended to protect should have had floodgates.

The Corps of Engineers has promised a full investigation into the levees' design and construction.

Enterprise Zones

The Los Angeles Times' editorial page is skeptical about Bush's new "Gulf Opportunity Zones" in New Orleans?tax incentives to bring...

| Wed Sep. 21, 2005 6:11 PM EDT

The Los Angeles Times' editorial page is skeptical about Bush's new "Gulf Opportunity Zones" in New Orleans—tax incentives to bring businesses back into the area:

To revive New Orleans' economy, Bush has proposed creating "Gulf Opportunity Zones." Similar to the "enterprise zones" that have been declared across the country since the 1980s, these would offer about $2 billion worth of tax breaks and loan subsidies to businesses that build and equip offices in Katrina's wake.

Although some analysts are enthusiastic about enterprise zones, they may not be the best way to encourage New Orleans' recovery. In general, most new jobs emanate from new, small businesses, which don't benefit much from tax breaks because they don't have much taxable income. By contrast, the beneficiaries of enterprise zones often are established businesses that move their offices into the zone to lower their tax burden.

Curiously, I haven't seen any paper report on the fact that the city of New Orleans had already been designated a "Renewable Community"—in essence, one of the aforementioned "enterprise zones"—and the Department of Housing and Urban Development had already been offering $17 billion worth of tax credits to businesses in the area since 2000. Did it do any good? Well, New Orleans remains one of the poorest cities in the country, and I haven't found any indications that things have perked up over the past four years. Interestingly, the Bush administration decided not to offer any new grant funding for these zones in 2004 "because the EZ program has not been deemed to be sufficiently effective."

The classic knock against these tax breaks is that they are too small to entice most businesses to move, and the ones who do set up in these zones probably would have moved anyway, meaning they just get free money. I'm not sure how a few more tax breaks will help. That said, $2 billion is a relatively small part of the overall reconstruction budget, so in theory it's worth a try, though this just seems like an odd thing for the White House to tout.