Political MoJo

If You're Born Poor, You'll Probably Stay That Way

| Tue Jun. 3, 2014 12:08 PM EDT
Inner City Baltimore

In 1997, before The Wire made him a household name, then-Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon published The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, a book about an open-air drug market at West Fayette and Monroe Streets in Baltimore. The book painted a grim portrait of the urban ghetto and the people trapped there. It was hailed as a landmark work of immersion journalism.

But Simon can't hold a candle to Karl Alexander, a Johns Hopkins sociologist who followed nearly 800 people from the neighborhoods surrounding Simon's corner since they started first grade in 1982. Alexander and his Hopkins colleagues are now publishing the final results of that 30-year study, their own version of The Corner, called The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth And the Transition to Adulthood. What they've found isn't quite as grim as what Simon described, but it's not much more encouraging.

Alexander set out to look at how family influences the trajectory of a low-income child's life. Thirty years later, he's decided that family determines almost everything, and that a child's fate is essentially fixed by how well off her parents were when she was born.

Alexander's findings conflict with the sort of Horatio Alger stories of American mythology, but not with other social science research on upward mobility. His are especially dispiriting. Of the nearly 800 school kids he's been following for 30 years, those who got a better start—because their parents were working or married—tended to stay better off, while the more disadvantaged stayed poor.

Out of the original 800 public school children he started with, 33 moved from low-income birth family to a high-income bracket by the time they neared 30. Alexander found that education, rather than giving kids a fighting chance at a better life, simply preserved privilege across generations. Only 4 percent of the low-income kids he met in 1982 had college degrees when he interviewed them at age 28, whereas 45 percent of the kids from higher-income backgrounds did.

Perhaps more striking in his findings was the role of race in upward mobility. Alexander found that among men who drop out of high school, the employment differences between white and black men was truly staggering. At age 22, 89 percent of the white subjects who'd dropped of high school were working, compared with 40 percent of the black dropouts.

These differences came despite the fact that it was the better-off white men who reported the highest rates of drug abuse and binge drinking. White men from disadvantaged families came in second in that department. White men also had high rates of encounters with the criminal justice system. At age 28, 41 percent of the white men born into low-income families had criminal convictions, compared with 49 percent of the black men from similar backgrounds, an indication that it is indeed race, not a criminal record, that's keeping a lot of black men out of the workforce.

Alexander doesn't call it white privilege, but it's basically what he describes. His data suggests that the difference in employment rates between white and black men with similar drug problems and arrest records stems from better social networks among white men, who have more friends and family members who can help them overcome many of their obvious impediments to employment.

He does find some silver linings in the data and in the interviews with people he's been talking to since they were six years old. Included in one random sample from a single, very poor public school close to Simon's corner were 22 African-American men. Alexander was able to stay in touch with 18 of them through 2005, when they were adults. Of that 18, 17 had been arrested and convicted of a crime at some time in their lives. (Seven of the interviews in 2005 were done in prisons.) But a fair number of that group had also gone on to get post-secondary education of some sort, and nine were also working full time—two making more than $50,000 a year, indications that not everyone from the 'hood was doomed to a life of poverty and crime. "These are young black men from The Corner working steadily and drawing a decent paycheck," Alexander writes.

Even so, he admits that his substantial data trove proves pretty conclusively that social status in the inner city is relatively immobile. 

“The implication is where you start in life is where you end up in life,” Alexander said in a press release. “It’s very sobering to see how this all unfolds.”

 

 

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Obama to Donors: "I Might Be In a Very Strong Position" To Demand Constitutional Change on Money in Politics

| Tue Jun. 3, 2014 11:28 AM EDT

Ken Vogel knows what it is like to get tossed out of a good party. Among us campaign finance reporters, Vogel is known as a fearless crasher of political fundraisers and invite-only donor schmoozefests, from which he is usually—but thankfully not always—ejected. As the chief investigative reporter for Politico, the hyper-competitive town organ for Washington, DC, Vogel has for years chronicled the rapidly increasing flow of money into American politics and the eccentric, grouchy, madcap millionaires and billionaires who, in Vogel's telling, "are—in a very real and entirely legal way—hijacking American democracy."

Vogel's new book, Big Money: 2.5 Billion Dollars, One Suspicious Vehicle, and a Pimp—On The Trail of the Ultra-Rich Hijacking American Politics, propels us through the ever-changing world of what he calls "big-money politics." Here are four juicy tidbits from Big Money.

1) Bill Clinton told donors that a controversial new pro-Obama nonprofit group could be used to influence the 2014 midterms—despite the nonprofit's pledge to be issue-only

Vogel reports on a January 2013 private speech by Clinton to a group of Obama fundraisers on behalf of Organizing for Action (OFA), the rebooted version of Obama's 2012 campaign. Launched at the start of the president's second term, Obama officials said OFA would focus strictly on issues—gun control, immigration, raising the minimum wage. But that's not how Clinton saw it:

"This is a huge deal, this midterm election," said Clinton. "And I think even more important, this question is whether we can use the techniques that actually gave people the chance to debate health care, debate economic policy, understand what happened in the Recovery Act, all these things that were an issue last time, understand why the welfare reform act was wrong, and the Medicare Act was wrong. Can we use that to actually enact an agenda in the Congress and then go into the midterm and protect the people who voted for it?"

2) Josh Romney invited all of his dad's biggest rainmakers to a future Romney White House inauguration ceremony

On the eve of the 2012 Republican Party convention in Tampa, Vogel got inside a reception for major Romney donors and fundraisers (also known as bundlers). At one point in the shindig, Josh Romney, one of Mitt's sons, appeared to go a little overboard when thanking his dad's money-men:

"My dad will be the next president of the United States of America and you are all invited to the inauguration," [Romney] proclaimed to rousing cheers before backtracking sheepishly, as if wondering whether the complicated campaign and ethics rules forbade inviting big donors to the inauguration. "I don't think I'm really allowed to do that," he said, looking offstage to his right, perhaps for guidance from a campaign official familiar with the rules, before letting his exuberance and sense of kinship with the campaign's rich supporters takes over. "But it's a big place, so you all can come."

3) Romney's inner circle flirted with using a legally dicey big-money committee for his first presidential run

Top aides secretly hatched a plan to boost Romney's 2008 campaign by forming a so-called 527 committee, a big-spending precursor to super PACs. They called it Turnaround America and enlisted a well-connected fundraiser named Phil Musser to run the group. But the plan didn't get far:

Musser laid it all out in a PowerPoint presentation, and he spent a few months crisscrossing the country on his own dime, delivering it to Romney's richest backers. Several liked the plan and made tentative commitments. But most got cold feet after they checked with their lawyers, who explained that it could expose them to legal risk. The plan was too far ahead of its time, and Musser scrapped it before he ever filed the paperwork, leaving no trace that more than two years before the Citizens United decision Romney's allies had foreseen the power of what would become super PACs.

4) Obama privately suggested he'd push for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United during his second term

Obama made waves during an August 2012 Reddit "Ask Me Anything" forum by voicing support for a constitutional amendment to roll back the effects of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. It turns out that such a radical move, favored by many activists on the left, had been on the president's mind for quite a while.

Vogel quotes the president stumping for an amendment during a February 2012 Q-and-A at a private Seattle fundraiser:

"Now, I taught constitutional law," Obama continued to [Bill] Gates et alia. "I don't tinker with the Constitution lightly. But I think this is important enough that citizens have to get mobilized around this issue, and this will probably be a multiyear effort. After my reelection, my sense is that I may be in a very strong position to do it."

Obama added that a reelection victory "may allow me to use the bully pulpit to argue forcefully for a constitutional amendment." So far, the president has done no such thing.

Jay Carney Is Stepping Down as White House Press Secretary

| Fri May 30, 2014 2:28 PM EDT

Jay Carney is stepping down as White House Press Secretary, President Obama announced Friday. Carney, who joined the administration in 2011 after more than two decades in journalism, will be replaced by Josh Earnest. Earnest had served as Carney's deputy.

Gone but not forgotten, we'll think of Carney whenever we watch A Christmas Story.

 

 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 30, 2014

Fri May 30, 2014 10:12 AM EDT

More than 1,000 cadets of Class of 2014 received their diplomas in Michie Stadium May 28, during the U.S. Military Academy’s Graduation and Commissioning Ceremony. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Fincham)

Measles Cases in the US are at a 20-Year High. Thanks, Anti-Vaxxers.

| Thu May 29, 2014 9:07 PM EDT

New data released by the CDC on Thursday shows that 288 cases of measles have been reported in the US since the beginning of the year—a higher number than those seen in the first five months of any year since 1994. More than one in seven of this year's cases resulted in hospitalization.

As assistant surgeon general Dr. Anne Schuchat explained, "The current increase in measles cases is being driven by unvaccinated people, primarily U.S. residents, who got measles in other countries, brought the virus back to the United States and spread to others in communities where many people are not vaccinated." Several of the cases occurred after US residents traveled to the Philippines, where there has been a measles outbreak since October 2013.

According to the CDC press release, "90 percent of all measles cases in the United States were in people who were not vaccinated or whose vaccination status was unknown. Among the U.S. residents who were not vaccinated, 85 percent were religious, philosophical or personal reasons."

The data adds fuel to the ongoing debate about vaccines: though research from around the world consistently shows that vaccines work, some doctors continue to support opting out of immunizations, and in some states, more than five percent of kindergartners have nonmedical vaccine exemptions.

Measles chart

 

WATCH: To Understand the VA Disaster, Just Call the "Health Care Benefits" Toll Free Number. [Fiore Cartoon]

| Thu May 29, 2014 7:49 PM EDT

 

 

Mark Fiore is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist and animator whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Examiner, and dozens of other publications. He is an active member of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists, and has a website featuring his work.

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Snowden's Odd Email to the NSA Deepens the Mystery

| Thu May 29, 2014 5:21 PM EDT

So you're in the middle of the biggest secrets-blowing caper in the history of the known universe. You're one of a small number of people who have access to the most classified information about the most classified spying programs of the most powerful superpower—and you're swiping tens of thousands of pages of these secrets and preparing to hand them over to journalists. You've already made contact with your recipients—and it was harder than you thought to do so. You've switched jobs, moving from one contractor to another, in order to snatch more of the documents you want revealed to the unknowing public. You're scraping NSA servers. You're watching your back. Oh damn, you are certainly watching your back. You know the people you work for can monitor who gets in and out of the system, and though you are one of the few with the keys to the crypt, you have to be worried—scratch that, paranoid, and rightfully so—that someone's going to wise up. You make a slip—they might be watching right now—and the alarms go off. And it's no more Hawaiian paradise. It's federal prison. But you're committed. You have your plan. You're about to send a security kit to an American reporter who lives in Brazil and works for a British outlet so you can communicate via a safe and encrypted mechanism. You're keeping all of this secret from your live-in girlfriend. You're thinking about your getaway. Iceland, maybe Iceland. You know that you are engaged in risky business. You could end up changing the world. You could end up dead. Yes, dead. On the run, some times things happens. It's possible. Oh, what was that sound? Did something weird just happen with your laptop? Did a strange car drive past the house not once but twice? Man, this is intense.

And in the middle of this adrenalin-laced stretch—on April 5, 2013, a mere weeks before you start slipping that journalist top-secret docs exposing the USG's biggest secrets and then head to Hong Kong to meet him and his compatriots—you send an email to the NSA's general counsel's office, posing a rather prosaic query. One question: Why?

Today the NSA released an email Edward Snowden sent its general counsel on that date. The spy agency was responding to NBC News reporting that it had confirmed that the NSA had received an email from Snowden before he leaked all those documents expressing "policy and legal" concerns. This report seemed to bolster Snowden's claim that he had alerted intelligence officials of his profound concerns about the NSA's extensive surveillance programs before taking matters into his own hand and becoming a whistleblower. But when the NSA put out the email—claiming it was the only communication of this sort it had received from Snowden—there was a surprise: Snowden had not contacted the NSA's top lawyers about possible abuses within the NSA. He had asked questions regarding information in a training course. The course had covered the "Hierarchy of Governing Authorities" for federal action. At the top of the chain was the US Constitution. Right below were federal statutes and presidential executive orders. Snowden wanted to know which of the two ranked higher. "My understanding is that EOs may be superseded by federal statutes, but EOs may not override statute," he wrote. " Am I incorrect in this?" And he had a similar question about Pentagon regulations and Office of Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) rules. 

That was it. A simple query about training material.

Someone in the general counsel's office—the person's name is redacted—replied quickly and informed Snowden that EOs cannot override a statute and that Defense Department and ODNI regs "are afforded similar precedence." This NSA official helpfully added, "Please give me a call if you would like to discuss further." Apparently, if the NSA is to be believed, Snowden was satisfied and did not follow up. 

Why would a fellow currently mounting a significant penetration of an intelligence agency choose on his own to contact the lawyers for that agency and ask these questions? Why did he care about this? Why would he want to be on their radar screen at all at this time? Was he trying to establish some sort of paper trail? Was he worried that he had left a clue somewhere about his ongoing operation and thought such a note would divert attention?

This is a puzzler. Snowden comes across as a smart and thorough fellow who sure knows how to plan well. But how does this email fit into the plan? Marcy Wheeler suggests that Snowden was trying to get the NSA lawyers to admit that the agency saw EOs as top dogs (to prove, in a way, that the NSA was using one particular EO to trump laws that might limit its surveillance activities). Until Snowden explains this email himself, it's hard to know if this is correct. If so, Snowden would be even a cooler cucumber. It's hard to imagine a fellow who's about to sabotage an entire intelligence community deciding that this is a good time to play mind games with the lawyers at the NSA and possibly draw notice. In all his interviews, Snowden hasn't mentioned that he sought to squeeze this kind of secret out of the NSA as he was filling up disk drives with its most sensitive documents. 

So here is a new question about Snowden. And the question remains: whether (and how) Snowden tried to go through channels before going to Greenwald and the Washington Post. 

The ACLU, which represents Snowden, says of this email controversy, "This whole issue is a red herring. The problem was not some unknown and isolated instance of misconduct. The problem was that an entire system of mass surveillance had been deployed—and deemed legal—without the knowledge or consent of the public. Snowden raised many complaints over many channels. The NSA is releasing a single part of a single exchange after previously claiming that no evidence existed." (Mother Jones asked the ACLU if it could share more of this email exchange, and it said it didn't "have any other info.")

Yes, the big picture is still there: How far over the line did the NSA go with its surveillance programs, and what ought to be done about that? But Snowden's tale is also captivating, and the release of this email today adds to the mystery.

UPDATE: Several hours after the NSA released the Snowden email, Snowden told the Washington Post, "Today’s release is incomplete, and does not include my correspondence with the Signals Intelligence Directorate’s Office of Compliance, which believed that a classified executive order could take precedence over an act of Congress, contradicting what was just published. It also did not include concerns about how indefensible collection activities—such as breaking into the back-haul communications of major US internet companies—are sometimes concealed under EO 12333 to avoid Congressional reporting requirements and regulations."

Snowden insisted that he had tried to work within the system: "If the White House is interested in the whole truth, rather than the NSA’s clearly tailored and incomplete leak today for a political advantage, it will require the NSA to ask my former colleagues, management, and the senior leadership team about whether I, at any time, raised concerns about the NSA’s improper and at times unconstitutional surveillance activities. It will not take long to receive an answer."

Snowden said there were other relevant emails (presumably sent to the NSA) "not just on this topic. I’m glad they’ve shown they have access to records they claimed just a few months ago did not exist, and I hope we’ll see the rest of them very soon." He maintained, "I showed numerous colleagues direct evidence of programs that those colleagues considered unconstitutional or otherwise concerning. Today’s strangely tailored and incomplete leak only shows the NSA feels it has something to hide."

If Snowden did have more extensive correspondence with the NSA, he and/or the agency should be able to resolve the question of what he sought to do before revealing the NSA's most important secrets..

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 29, 2014

Thu May 29, 2014 10:08 AM EDT

Cpl. Jeffery Mount, from Hendersonville, Tennessee, team member, Security Force Assistance Advisor Team 2-215, moves his gear in preparation to leave Forward Operating Base Nolay, Helmand province, Afghanistan, May 2, 2014. Mount, along with the rest of SFAAT 2-215, are completing a seven-month deployment to the area as the last advisors in support of the 2nd Brigade, 215th Corps, Afghan National Army. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Joshua Young/Released)

Elizabeth Warren to Obama: Fed Nominees Should Crack Down On Big Banks

| Thu May 29, 2014 10:07 AM EDT

Elizabeth Warren is at it again. On Wednesday, the senator from Massachusetts and her colleague Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) called out the Federal Reserve—the US central bank charged with setting monetary policy and regulating big banks—for being too lax on financial reform, and urged the Obama administration to fill two open seats on the Fed's seven-member board with candidates committed to cracking down on Wall Street.

"As the events of 2008 showed, when the Federal Reserve and other financial regulators failed to engage in appropriate financial regulation, the results were the worst financial crisis in 80 years," the two senators wrote in a letter to President Barack Obama Wednesday. "Financial regulation and oversight obligations must be front and central to the Board's work."

The Fed's banking watchdog duties include imposing penalties on financial firms for violations such as inadequate money laundering protections and faulty foreclosure practices. Federal Reserve board members also vote on restrictions on CEO pay and rules governing how much emergency capital banks have to keep on their books.

This is not the first time that Warren has pushed the Fed to take its financial regulatory role more seriously. Earlier this year, she called on the heads of the central bank to stop delegating big decisions on bank oversight to staffers. Of the close to 1,000 formal enforcement actions taken by the Federal Reserve over the past decade, only 11 were voted on by the board itself. The rest were delegated to Fed staff, sometimes mid-level employees. In a letter to the Fed in February, Warren contended that the delegation of authority has resulted in bank penalties that are too lenient.

Last September, Warren and fellow Democrats on the Senate banking committee opposed Obama's plans to nominate former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers to run the Fed, citing Summers' work on behalf of the banking giant Citigroup and his past efforts to deregulate the financial industry. (Obama ended up withdrawing Summers' name from consideration.)

And at Fed chair Janet Yellen's Senate confirmation hearing in November, Warren told Yellen, "I’m concerned that [financial regulatory] responsibilities just aren’t a top priority for the board of governors."

In addition to the two Fed posts Warren and Merkley are concerned about, there are three other openings on the Fed board for which Obama has already nominated candidates. Those nominees are Lael Brainard, a former Treasury official; Jerome Powell, who has been a Fed board member since 2012 and is up for a second term; and Stanley Fischer, the former head of the Bank of Israel, whom the Senate just confirmed. There has been no real opposition by Senate Dems to any of these three nominees.

Can Mental Health Courts Fix California's Prison Overcrowding?

| Wed May 28, 2014 4:00 PM EDT

Passed in 1994, California's "three strikes" law is the nation's harshest sentencing law. Designed to imprison for life anyone who commits three violent crimes, the law has inadvertently resulted in the incarceration of a lot relatively harmless people, for a long time and at great public expense. Crimes that have earned people life sentences: Stealing a dollar in loose change from a car, breaking into a soup kitchen to steal food, stealing a jack from the open window of a tow truck, and even stealing two pairs of children's shoes from Ross Dress for Less. The law is one reason that California's prison system is dangerously, and unconstitutionally, overcrowded. More than 4,000 people in the prison system are serving life sentences for non-violent crimes.

In 2012, with corrections costs consuming ever more of the state budget, the voters in the state had had enough, and they approved a reform measure that would spring many of these low-level offenders from a lifetime of costly confinement. By August of last year, more than 1,000 inmates had their life sentences changed and were released; recidivisim rates for this group has also been extremely low. But further progress in the reform effort is being stymied by one thorny problem: Nearly half of the inmates serving time in California prisons suffer from a serious mental illness such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. So far, judges have been reluctant to let these folks out of their life sentences.

A new report from Stanford Law School's Three Strikes project notes that the number of mentally ill prisoners denied relief from a life sentence is three times larger than those without a brain disease. The disparity largely stems from the fact that judges and juries tend to give people with brain diseases much harsher sentences to begin with.

Once in prison, their illnesses go untreated, and the prison conditions exacerbate their behavioral symptoms. As a result, they are at greater risk of getting in trouble for breaking prison rules and being sanctioned with severe disciplinary measures, including solitary confinement—a vicious cycle that can make their symptoms even worse, getting them in even more trouble. A long record of rule-breaking is one thing judges consider when weighing a request to reduce a life sentence under three-strikes reform, and a reason so many mentally ill people have been denied resentencing.

All of these factors are now driving a push in California to work harder to ensure that people with brain diseases don't end up in the correctional system in the first place. Led by State Senator Darrell Steinberg and Stanford law professors who published the new report, the effort includes a call for more investment in mental health courts that focus on treatment rather than punishment. California currently has 40 such courts in 27 counties, and people like Steinberg think they should be expanded state-wide thanks to their effectiveness and cost-savings.

In 2006, Santa Clara County calculated $20 million in savings from its mental health court's success in keeping mentally ill people out of prisons. Sacramento County saw the cost of keeping mentally ill people out of traditional courts fall 88 percent thanks to its mental health court. Other research has shown that the specialized courts also keep mentally ill people from cycling back into the justice system. Mentally ill people in Michigan's mental health courts commit new crimes at a rate 300 percent lower than those who weren't in those courts.

But money isn't the only reason Steinberg wants to see mental health courts expanded. He notes in the Stanford report that this new approach "saves lives from being forsaken." He invokes the moral cost of failing to treat sick people with compassion, and the tragedy of the lost human potential that occurs when the only place for a person with a brain disease today is in a prison.

Watch the video directed by Kelly Duane de la Vega and Kattie Galloway of Loteria Films (above) about the mental health courts that makes his point and shows just how powerful such venues can be in reclaiming lives and helping sick people return to normal functioning in the community. 

All charts courtesy of Stanford Law School's Three Strikes project