First Daughters

If I am not mistaken, John Kennedy, Jr. was the last boy to live in the White House.  Since then we have had the Johnson Daughters, Nixon girls, Amy Carter, Chelsea Clinton, the Bush twins, and the Obama girls.  One could also count Margaret Truman who did live in the White House even though she was in her twenties.  I have to say, that all of the first daughters have done pretty well for themselves.

Lynda Johnson married Charles Robb, a Marine she met while he was assigned to the White House.  Lynda once told some of us that she never thought she was marrying another politician.  She assumed that Chuck would be a career Marine.  [I had the pleasure of working for Governor Robb and knew Mrs. Robb from her work with the Virginia Commission of the Status of Women of which I was a member.]  Tricia Nixon and Luci Johnson opted for quieter lives.  Julie Nixon married an Eisenhower.

Gail Collins has an interesting column in today’s New York Times on the almost eve of Chelsea Clinton’s wedding.

This is hard, let me tell you,” said Hillary Clinton.She was referring to preparations for her daughter’s big day, not high-stakes diplomacy. Although the two might be connected. Maybe the North Koreans threatened to nuke the American-South Korean war games because they thought our country would be easy to bulldoze while the secretary of state was laboring under the stress of wedding planning.

“I was one of those brides of our vintage,” Clinton told me a while back. We are of the same generation, and during her presidential campaign she once said that she was always happy to see me because at least there would be somebody her age on the press plane.

“We agreed to get married one weekend, got married the next weekend,” Clinton reminisced.

Chelsea is definitely going in a different direction. The estimates of the cost of her wedding have all been coming from people who aren’t actually involved in it, but if they get any more grandiose, we will have stories on Fox News about how the ceremony cost more than the national budget of Burundi.

Let her have her day. She’s due. Chelsea has been a national public figure against her will since she was 12, and in all that time she has never embarrassed her family — or us. Before she went off to Columbia to study public health policy, she worked for a New York management consulting firm and a hedge fund where her colleagues unanimously (and off-the-recordly) reported that she was a stupendously hard worker. She recognized early on that when celebrity is thrust on you, the trick is to learn to do something besides being famous.

(Talking to you, Bristol.)

Caroline Kennedy married a non political man just as Chelsea seems to be doing.  But Caroline made an abortive attempt to enter politics as New York Senator, has been campaigning for Obama and may yet have a political future.  Her brother died much too young but I think everyone thought he was planning on entering politics.  It is too early to tell about Chelsea’s political future.

Caroline Schlossberg

Collins talks about Amy Carter

I  always had a feeling that Amy Carter, who was sent to public school in Washington amid a crush of publicity, did not love the experience.But she seemed to be happy at her own wedding in 1996 in the yard of her late grandmother’s house, cutting a wedding cake she had baked herself. The bride wore an embroidered dress from the 1920s. The groom, a computer consultant, wore a ponytail. Her father did not give her away because, as Jimmy Carter told the press, “Amy said she didn’t belong to anyone.”

The Bush twins also turned out well.

Jenna Bush had a few unfortunate brushes with the law during her White House years. But it was nothing that couldn’t have been avoided if the legal drinking age in Texas had been 18. Anyway, she seems to have turned out great. After graduation, she worked for Unicef, taught at an inner-city public school in Washington and wrote a book about a young woman with AIDS in Latin America. She is now a reading coordinator at a school in Baltimore and makes occasional reports on education for “Today.”

Her sister, Barbara, worked at a hospital in South Africa, did educational programming for a museum and now leads a Peace Corps-type organization called Global Health Corps. The twins are only 28, but they already seem to have racked up more good works than Mother Teresa.

Collins concludes

Happy wedding, Chelsea. Excellent job, Bush twins. Good luck, Amy Carter, wherever you are. We are pleased to be a country that produced such nice young adults out of such a lunatic political environment.

Amen.  And good luck to the Obama girls.  I’m sure they will turn out just as well as the other First Daughters.

Sox and the DL

For a month or so now, the recitation of Red Sox on the disabled list has taken a bit of time.  Sage Stossel had a great op-ed drawing in last Sunday’s Boston Globe. 

Now they are coming back.  Matsuzaka, Martinez, Lowrie, Cameron, Buchholtz.  Veriteck and Pedroia are still practicing fielding even with broken feet.  This morning’s Globe headline: 

Red Sox regain punch

Ortiz, Martinez knock out Angels

Was last night a sign that things are turning around?

The Afghanistan War Logs

Someone has leaked six years worth of classified documents about the war in Afghanistan through a website called WikiLeaks.org. 

White House spokesperson, Robert Gibbs, and National Security Advisor, James Jones, have both condemned the leaks.  The White House is also using them to explain why the President ordered the increase in troops. But what do they really show?  The Afghanistan War Logs show that there are probably a lot more civilian casualties than we thought; the insurgents have weapons that can shoot down our military aircraft; and there is a lot of corruption by warlords and government in Afghanistan.   There is also information that at least part of the government of Pakistan has been aiding the Taliban.  Is any of this really new?  Has anything changed since December?  I think the answer to both questions is “no.”

The most interesting information to emerge is from the Guardian.

The shadow of Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, hangs heavily over the US-led coalition’s campaign in Afghanistan. Again and again, the secret watchers of American military intelligence, whose furtive and often confused attempts at information gathering are collated in the 2004-2009 war logs, glimpse the hidden hand of the al-Qaida chief or catch a tantalising whiff of his whereabouts, only for the trail to turn cold and peter out.

Reportedly a high-level meeting was held in Quetta, Pakistan, where six suicide bombers were given orders for an operation in northern Afghanistan. Two persons have been given targets in Kunduz, two in Mazar-e-Sharif and the last two are said to come to Faryab,” the report claimed.It went on: “These meetings take place once every month, and there are usually about 20 people present. The place for the meeting alternates between Quetta and villages (NFDG) [no further details given] on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“The top four people in these meetings are Mullah Omar [the Taliban leader], Osama bin Laden, Mullah Dadullah and Mullah [Baradar]. “The six foreigners who have been given the assignment have each been given $50,000 [£32,000] to conduct the attacks, and they have been promised that their families will be taken care of.”

So are we really fighting in Afghanistan and trying to navigate a very complicated cultural and political situation because George W. Bush lost interest in pursuring bin Laden?  We now seem to be the outsiders trying to impose a solution instead of fighting terrorism.  I keep waiting for someone to talk about winning hearts and minds like in Vietnam.  Reports are that many Afghani’s don’t like either President Karzai or the American troops.

John Nichols writes in the Nation

The echo you are hearing is that of the Nixon administration responding to the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Indeed, as Dan Ellsberg, the military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers says: “I’m very impressed by the release. It is the first release in 39 years or 40 years, since I first gave the Pentagon papers to the Senate, of the scale of the Pentagon papers.”

 We can only hope that Obama and his aides have read enough history to recognize that Nixon’s over-reaction to the Pentagon Papers began a process that would lead — at least in part — to a House Judiciary Committee vote to impeach him and the only presidential resignation in the country’s history.

I’ve always thought that the President’s strategy was to increase the troops, tough it out until 2011, and then start leaving.  I hope that these revelations push him harder in that direction.

And I am very proud of the reaction of Senator John Kerry.  John Nichols again

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, did a whole lot better than the administration.

 “However illegally these documents came to light, they raise serious questions about the reality of America’s policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan,” said Kerry, whose discomfort with the Afghanistan operation has grown increasingly evident. “Those policies are at a critical stage and these documents may very well underscore the stakes and make the calibrations needed to get the policy right more urgent.”

 Kerry should hold hearings with regard to the Afghanistan War Logs.

As a bonus, here is a short history of the War in Afghanistan from the New York Times.

The Conflict in Afghanistan

  • 1979 The Soviet Union invades Afghanistan. Mujahedeen — Islamic fighters — from across the globe, including Osama bin Laden, come to fight Soviet forces.
  • 1989 Last Soviet troops leave Afghanistan.
  • 1996 The Taliban take control of Afghanistan, imposing fundamentalist Islamic law. Osama bin Laden takes refuge in the country.
  • Sept. 2001 After the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush gives the Taliban an ultimatum to hand over bin Laden; the Taliban refuse, and in October the U.S. leads a campaign that drives the Taliban out of major Afghan cities by the end of the year.
  • 2002 Hamid Karzai becomes interim president of Afghanistan. The Taliban continue to wage guerrilla warfare near the border with Pakistan.
  • 2004 New constitution is ratified, making Afghanistan an Islamic state with a strong president. Later, Mr. Karzai wins the country’s first presidential election.
  • Feb. 2009 President Obama orders 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.
  • Aug. 2009 President Karzai wins re-election in a vote marred by fraud.
  • Dec. 2009 President Obama issues orders to send 30,000 troops in 2010, bringing the total American force to about 100,000.
  • The case for ending tax cuts

    This week Kenneth Feinberg announced the list of banks that took tax payer money while paying our huge bonuses.  On NPR, John Ydstie reported that

    In the fall of 2008, with the financial system on the verge of collapse, 17 large banks that were being propped up by taxpayers doled out $1.6 billion in bonuses.

    On Friday, the Obama administration’s pay czar, Kenneth Feinberg, passed judgment.

    According to Feinberg, “…many were over $10 million per individual.”

    And what exactly have these individuals done with their bonuses?  Have they created jobs?  I don’t think so.

    Which brings me to the tax cut which is looming as the next hot potato for the Democrats and for President Obama.  We all remember the conversation the President had with Joe the Plumber during the campaign during which Obama, who clearly thought he was talking with someone rational, tried to explain that he was not going to raise taxes on the middle class.

    The New York Times reports

    Democratic leaders, including Mr. Obama, say they are intent on letting the tax cuts for the wealthy expire as scheduled at the end of this year. But they have pledged to continue the lower tax rates for individuals earning less than $200,000 and families earning less than $250,000 — what Democrats call the middle class.

    Most Republicans want to extend the tax cuts for everyone, and some Democrats agree, saying it would be unwise to raise taxes on anyone while the economy remains weak. If no action is taken, taxes on income, dividends, capital gains and estates would all rise.

    We do not buy into the theory that because the economy is still recovering, extending tax cuts for the highest earners is a necessary or effective policy response,” said Gene Sperling, counselor to Mr. Geithner.

    “While we are supporting measures like small-business lending and tax cuts to spark growth,” Mr. Sperling added, “it is also important to show the world that we are following through on our commitment to long-term fiscal discipline.”

    Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont makes the case for the change in the Nation.

    The American people are hurting. As a result of the greed, recklessness and illegal behavior on Wall Street, millions of Americans have lost their jobs, homes, life savings and their ability to get a higher education. Today, some 22 percent of our children live in poverty, and millions more have become dependent on food stamps for their food.

    And while the Great Wall Street Recession has devastated the middle class, the truth is that working families have been experiencing a decline for decades. During the Bush years alone, from 2000-2008, median family income dropped by nearly $2,200 and millions lost their health insurance. Today, because of stagnating wages and higher costs for basic necessities, the average two-wage-earner family has less disposable income than a one-wage-earner family did a generation ago. The average American today is underpaid, overworked and stressed out as to what the future will bring for his or her children. For many, the American dream has become a nightmare.

     But, not everybody is hurting. While the middle class disappears and poverty increases the wealthiest people in our country are not only doing extremely well, they are using their wealth and political power to protect and expand their very privileged status at the expense of everyone else. This upper-crust of extremely wealthy families are hell-bent on destroying the democratic vision of a strong middle-class which has made the United States the envy of the world. In its place they are determined to create an oligarchy in which a small number of families control the economic and political life of our country.

    The New York Times story points out how difficult changing the tax policy will be as it will involve many different element.

    Congress must also wrestle with the estate tax, which lapsed last year but will automatically be reinstated effectively at a 55 percent rate on Jan. 1 for estates larger than $1 million. Lawmakers must also deal with an array of other provisions, including tax rates on dividends and capital gains, and the Alternative Minimum Tax, which has been adjusted annually to prevent millions of middle-class families from paying higher tax bills. The child tax credit would also be reduced.

    So what should the strategy be?

    Negotiations are expected to start in the Senate, where it is hardest for Democrats to advance legislation because of Republican filibusters. But some Democrats say a fallback plan would be to have their larger majority in the House approve a continuation of the lower rates just for the middle class right before the election, almost daring Republicans to oppose them.

    In that case, Democrats say, Republicans who opposed the bill would be blocking a tax cut for more than 95 percent of Americans to defend tax cuts for a relatively few wealthy households. Republicans are readying an arsenal of economic data to portray the Democrats as endangering the precarious recovery and harming small-business owners, some of whom are taxed at the top personal income tax rates.

    But some lawmakers, including Mr. Wyden, [Senator from Oregon] say the deficit concerns and the attention on the debt commission could help forge a deal: a short-term continuation of the tax cuts for the middle class, and perhaps some new tax breaks for businesses, that would buy lawmakers time to undertake a broad overhaul of the tax code in the next Congress.

    It will be interesting to see if a change for the middle class can be made before the election and even more interesting to see what the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform reports in December.

    I am not an economist, but won’t the revenue generated by increasing taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations making over a certain amount – or that off shore their jobs-  help the deficit?   And I wonder if some are not actually paying more on their unemployment than those bankers are on their bonuses?

    Race is complicated

    3 days ago no one had heard of Shirley Sherrod who turns out to be the wife of Charles Sherrod, a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

    The Nation reports on Melissa Harris-Lacewell’s appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.

    Up until a few days ago, most of the nation didn’t know who Shirley Sherrod was, but for people who have made a life and a career out of studying civil rights, like Nation columnist Melissa Harris-Lacewell, that name was no news to them. Shirley Sherrod is the wife of Charles Sherrod, a foundational member of the Civil Rights Movement and one of the founders of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Lacewell explains that Sherrod “was not just a bureaucrat working away in Georgia; this is a woman who is part of a family that has made real contributions to advancing the conversation on race in America.”

    And even though right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart only showed a short excerpt of Shirley Sherrod’s NAACP banquet speech and the administration rushed to judgment, Harris-Lacewell told Morning Joe that some good could come out of this scenario. She says that a national conversation on race is a bad idea, but a national classroom on race should be considered. Embedded under all of this mess is a beautiful story of Sherrod, the Spooner Family and interracial cooperation around issues of justice, Harris-Lacewell says. “The real narrative that Ms. Sherrod was telling is the narrative of someone who’s father was killed by the Ku Klux Klan, who developed prejudices and yet found a way through her advocacy and work to be a true advocate for this white farm family.”

    And lest we forget, the NAACP also rushed to judgement by first applauding her dismissal.  I guess we can forgive Ben Jealous who is too young to have lived though the SNCC days or the segregated schools attended by Shirley Sherrod.  Did he recognize the last name, I wonder.  The white family she helped, the Spooners, jumped to her defense.

    Image: Former Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod

    For wisdom on this issue, I turn to Eugene Robinson’s column in today’s Washington Post.

    After the Shirley Sherrod episode, there’s no longer any need to mince words: A cynical right-wing propaganda machine is peddling the poisonous fiction that when African Americans or other minorities reach positions of power, they seek some kind of revenge against whites.

    A few of the purveyors of this bigoted nonsense might actually believe it. Most of them, however, are merely seeking political gain by inviting white voters to question the motives and good faith of the nation’s first African American president. This is really about tearing Barack Obama down.

    It looked like a clear case of black racism in action. Within hours, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had forced her to resign. The NAACP, under attack from the right for having denounced racism in the Tea Party movement, issued a statement blasting Sherrod and condemning her attitude as unacceptable.

    But Breitbart had overstepped. The full video of Sherrod’s speech showed that she wasn’t bragging about being a racist, she was telling what amounted to a parable about prejudice and reconciliation. For one thing, the incident happened in 1986, when she was working for a nonprofit, long before she joined the federal government. For another, she helped that white man and his family save their farm, and they became friends. Through him, she said, she learned to look past race toward our common humanity.

    In effect, she was telling the story of America’s struggle with race, but with the roles reversed. For hundreds of years, black people were enslaved, oppressed and discriminated against by whites — until the civil rights movement gave us all a path toward redemption.

    So why was she forced to pull over and text a resignation?  Robinson explains

    The Sherrod case has fully exposed the right-wing campaign to use racial fear to destroy Obama’s presidency, and I hope the effect is to finally stiffen some spines in the administration. The way to deal with bullies is to confront them, not run away. Yet Sherrod was fired before even being allowed to tell her side of the story. She said the official who carried out the execution explained that she had to resign immediately because the story was going to be on Glenn Beck’s show that evening. Ironically, Beck was the only Fox host who, upon hearing the rest of Sherrod’s speech, promptly called for her to be reinstated. On Wednesday, Vilsack offered to rehire her.

    Shirley Sherrod stuck to her principles and stood her ground. I hope the White House learns a lesson.

    Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture has apologized and offered her a job.  President Obama called to apologize.  It seems unlikely at this writing that she will go back to work for the USDA, but one can never tell.

    The New York Times story points out

    That, however, is unlikely to be the end of it for Mr. Obama, who has struggled since the beginning of his presidency with whether, when and how to deal with volatile matters of race. No matter how hard his White House tries to keep the issue from defining his presidency, it keeps popping back up, fueled in part by high expectations from the left for the first black president, and in part by tactical opposition politics on the right.

    The Sherrod flap spotlighted how Mr. Obama is caught between these competing political forces, and renewed criticism from some of his supporters, especially prominent African-Americans, that he has been too defensive in dealing with matters of race — and too quick to react to criticism from the right

    “I think what you see in this White House is a hypersensitivity about issues of race, that has them often leaning too far to avoid confronting these issues, and in so doing lays the foundation for the very problem they would like to avoid,” said Wade Henderson, president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, an advocacy group here.

    I don’t pretend to know what the President should do.  On one hand you have the right including leaders like Newt Gingrich and the Tea Party quick to find reverse racism, i.e. favoritism, is anything that the President tries to do.  It is unlikely that given what is happened Congress will vote to fund the settlement for black farmers denied loans and other benefits for which he requested an appropriation.   The lawsuit was settled in 1999, but farmers have never seen a penny.  According the NPR story, some of them are hopeful that the Shirley Sherrod incident will help move things along, but I am afraid just the opposite will happen.  I hope they are right.

    A small group of black farmers rally at the Agriculture Department

    The White House may have, as Eugene Robinson hopes, learned the lesson not to react without all the facts.  But I fear that race is still an issue that divides us to the point we can’t talk about it.  During the Lincoln-Douglas debates. the part of Andrew Breitbart/Glenn Beck was played by Stephen Douglas.  Douglas said “I do not regard the negro as my equal, and positively deny that he is any kin to me whatsoever.”  The problem for all the modern day Stephen Douglas’s is that a black man has been elected President.  The problem for Barack Obama is being the first.  And the ultimate irony is that it is almost exactly one year since Henry Lewis Gates was arrested.

    The Frank-Dodd Financial Reform Bill

    Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times this afternoon

     President Obama signed into law on Wednesday a sweeping expansion of federal financial regulation, marking another — and perhaps last — major legislative victory before the midterm elections in November, which could recast the Congressional landscape.

    The signature achievement — a response to the 2008 financial crisis that fundamentally alters the relationship between Wall Street and the federal officials charged with regulating it — is a culmination of two years of fierce lobbying and intense debate over how to deal with the financial excesses that tipped the nation into the worst recession since the Great Depression.

    The law subjects more financial companies to federal oversight, regulates many derivatives contracts and creates a panel to detect risks as well as a consumer protection regulator. A number of the details have been left for regulators to work out, inevitably setting off complicated tangles down the road that could last for years.

    Obama Financial Reform

    Mr. Obama took pains to try to show how the complex legislation, with is dense pages on derivatives practices, will protect ordinary Americans.

    “If you’ve ever applied for a credit card, a student loan, or a mortgage, you know the feeling of signing your name to pages of barely understandable fine print,” Mr. Obama said. “But what often happens as a result, is that many Americans are caught by hidden fees and penalties, or saddled with loans they can’t afford.”

    He said the law would crack down on abusive practices in the mortgage industry, simplifying contracts and ending hidden fees and penalties, “so folks know what they’re signing.”

    So what exactly is in the bill?  According to a summary in the Christian Science Monitor

    A bill summary by Capitol Hill staff members includes 100 points. Here’s a shorter take, 10 points, focusing on less-publicized elements as well as some core provisions:

    • A first-ever federal office focused on the insurance industry will monitor the insurance industry for systemic risk. The industry will remain regulated largely at the state level.

    • FDIC deposit insurance for account-holders at banks, thrift institutions, and credit unions will be raised to $250,000 (from $100,000) retroactive to Jan. 1, 2008.

    • The State Department would have to submit an “illicit minerals trade strategy” for the Congo region. Manufacturers that use minerals originating in the Democratic Republic of Congo would have to disclose measures taken to exercise due diligence on the source and chain of custody of the materials. The provision, sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas, could affect high-tech firms like Intel and Apple.

    • The bill beefs up the powers of the Securities and Exchange Commission, including extra funds for enforcement. The SEC would get new power to impose fiduriary responsibility on investment brokers. That means the brokers would have to offer advice based on the best interest of clients, not broker fees. Consumer advocates say the bill should have mandated this change, not allowed the SEC to consider it.

    • New disclosure rules would apply to credit-rating firms, along with new penalties if the firms are irresponsible. In a nod to an amendment backed by Sen. Al Franken (D) of Minnesota, the bill seeks to end “shopping for ratings” by calling for the SEC to propose ways to prevent issuers of asset-backed securities from picking the firm they think will give the highest rating.

    • Shareholders would get a “say on pay,” with the right to a nonbinding vote on executive pay and golden parachutes. Standards for listing on an exchange would require that compensation committees include only independent directors.

    • Reforms would reshape Federal Reserve powers, including a ban on Fed bailouts targeted at specific firms (like AIG) in the future. The presidents of regional Fed banks would be selected entirely by directors representing the public, and not partly by directors representing banks that the Fed regulates.

    • The bill creates a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to consoldiate duties now charged to various federal agencies. It would have a consumer hot line, for questions on things like mortgages, and a new office of financial literacy.

    • A Financial Stability Oversight Council of top economic regulators will monitor systemwide risks. The bill summary says this group will ask the Federal Reserve to adopt “increasingly strict rules for capital, leverage, liquidity, risk management and other requirements as companies grow in size and complexity.”

    • An “orderly liquidation” mechanism would allow the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) to dismantle large financial companies that are on the brink of failure. Shareholders and unsecured creditors would bear losses, to end taxpayer bailouts. But the bill also allows the FDIC to shelter solvent banks from having to bear losses if there is a threat to overall US financial stability

    Thank you to Barney Frank, Chris Dodd, Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins and Scott Brown and all the Democrats except Ben Nelson we have a start and reining in the runway, unregulated financial system.

    Talking jobs and unemployment

    Today I went to a graduation for 58 men and women – almost all over 3o – who went to a program at the local YMCA to sharpen skills and make them more competitive in the job market.  I shared an intern with several others in my agency.  It was announced that 8 or 9 had found jobs.  Not bad in this market, but not good either. 

    Last week the Boston Globe ran a story about the report by the National Skills Coalition. 

    The report projects that by 2016, Massachusetts will have nearly 400,000 job openings that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year college degree. The report says “middle-skill” jobs will account for 38 percent of all openings.

    Ranging from licensed practical nurses to computer support specialists, the jobs have median annual incomes of about $50,000 to $55,000.

    The report says the state faces challenges in meeting the demand for middle-skilled workers, with only 32 percent of current employees having the credentials.

    The graduation I attended was designed to train people for these middle-skill jobs.  But until the jobs are created, the graduates still need to pay the rent, the mortgage, buy food and clothes.  These are men and women who are doing the rights things and are still finding it tough to find a job.  Some of them were unemployed before entering the program and some will be unemployed after graduation.  Some may be eligible for unemployment benefits, but may have exhausted their time.  Which brings me to the unemployment benefits issue.

    Let’s start with Paul Krugman.

    There was a time when everyone took it for granted that unemployment insurance, which normally terminates after 26 weeks, would be extended in times of persistent joblessness. It was, most people agreed, the decent thing to do.

    But that was then. Today, American workers face the worst job market since the Great Depression, with five job seekers for every job opening, with the average spell of unemployment now at 35 weeks. Yet the Senate went home for the holiday weekend without extending benefits. How was that possible?

    The answer is that we’re facing a coalition of the heartless, the clueless and the confused. Nothing can be done about the first group, and probably not much about the second. But maybe it’s possible to clear up some of the confusion.

    So who are the heartless?  They are Republicans and some Democrats a tiny number of whom may be acting out of principle.  They hide behind the deficit and statements from the clueless.

    By the clueless I mean people like Sharron Angle, the Republican candidate for senator from Nevada, who has repeatedly insisted that the unemployed are deliberately choosing to stay jobless, so that they can keep collecting benefits. A sample remark: “You can make more money on unemployment than you can going down and getting one of those jobs that is an honest job but it doesn’t pay as much. We’ve put in so much entitlement into our government that we really have spoiled our citizenry.”

    Now, I don’t have the impression that unemployed Americans are spoiled; desperate seems more like it. One doubts, however, that any amount of evidence could change Ms. Angle’s view of the world — and there are, unfortunately, a lot of people in our political class just like her.

    And then Krugman tackles the misinformed.

    But there are also, one hopes, at least a few political players who are honestly misinformed about what unemployment benefits do — who believe, for example, that Senator Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, was making sense when he declared that extending benefits would make unemployment worse, because “continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work.” So let’s talk about why that belief is dead wrong.

    Do unemployment benefits reduce the incentive to seek work? Yes: workers receiving unemployment benefits aren’t quite as desperate as workers without benefits, and are likely to be slightly more choosy about accepting new jobs. The operative word here is “slightly”: recent economic research suggests that the effect of unemployment benefits on worker behavior is much weaker than was previously believed. Still, it’s a real effect when the economy is doing well.

    But it’s an effect that is completely irrelevant to our current situation. When the economy is booming, and lack of sufficient willing workers is limiting growth, generous unemployment benefits may keep employment lower than it would have been otherwise. But as you may have noticed, right now the economy isn’t booming — again, there are five unemployed workers for every job opening. Cutting off benefits to the unemployed will make them even more desperate for work — but they can’t take jobs that aren’t there.

    Will extending benefit add the to deficit?  Krugman tackles this one also.

    But won’t extending unemployment benefits worsen the budget deficit? Yes, slightly — but as I and others have been arguing at length, penny-pinching in the midst of a severely depressed economy is no way to deal with our long-run budget problems. And penny-pinching at the expense of the unemployed is cruel as well as misguided.

    But is being against extending benefits a political plus?  Not according to two new polls out today.  According to the New York Times story in the Caucus both a CBS News and a ABC News/Washington Post poll found the majority of those surveyed believed that Congress should extend benefits.

    In the CBS News survey, 52 percent of respondents said Congress should extend unemployment benefits for people currently out of work, even if it meant increasing the budget deficit. Thirty-nine percent disagreed, and the rest said “it depends” or gave no opinion.

    Broken down by party affiliation, about 7 in 10 Democrats said they supported an extension, while most Republicans said they opposed it. Independents were more evenly divided, with 47 percent in favor and 42 percent opposed.

    The ABC News/Washington Post poll asked the question a little differently, and found even more support for an extension of unemployment benefits. The question noted that Congress had previously extended benefits because of the economic downturn, and was considering extending them again. It also presented capsules of each side of the debate, noting that supporters of the extension say it “will help those who can’t find work” while opponents say it “adds too much to the federal budget deficit.”

    The result: 62 percent of respondents said Congress should approve another extension, while 36 percent said it should not. Those in favor included 80 percent of Democrats and 59 percent of independents, as well as 43 percent of Republicans.

    So there doesn’t seem to be a lot of gain in opposition.

    Standing with three Americans who have struggled to find work, President Obama spoke in the Rose Garden about the need to extend unemployment benefits.

    The last word goes to the President.

    Under pressure in an election year to reduce the unemployment rate, now at 9.5 percent, Mr. Obama also urged the Senate to approve a package of tax cuts and an expansion of lending to small businesses. “We all have to continue our efforts to do everything in our power to spur growth and hiring,” Mr. Obama said at the White House.

    Mr. Obama, appearing before reporters in the Rose Garden flanked by three Americans who have had difficulty finding work, took aim at that argument. “That attitude reflects a lack of faith in the American people,” Mr. Obama said. “They’re not looking for a handout. They desperately want to work.”

    Mr. Obama sharply criticized Republicans who have several times in the past month voted against bringing an unemployment extension bill to the Senate floor.

    “After years of championing policies that turned a record surplus into a massive deficit, the same people who didn’t have any problem spending hundreds of billions of dollars on tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans are now saying we shouldn’t offer relief to middle-class Americans like Jim or Leslie or Denise, who really need help,” Mr. Obama said, referring to the three people who stood with him in the Rose Garden, brought to Washington by the White House to help illustrate the president’s point.

    The Bill will pass this week, probably without Republican support, after we get the new temporary Senator from West Virginia, Carte Goodwin. 

      

    The politics of Presidential vacations

    If we want to go away for a long weekend, Bob and I just pick the place and book a place to stay or more likely, just tell my sister we are coming up to Vermont.  No politics involved.  But where and for how long a President vacations becomes grist for the political mill.

    The Obamas walked along a trail with their daughters Sasha, left, and Malia on Cadillac Mountain.

    The first family picked Bar Harbor, Maine and Acadia National Park.  But the big flap is that they didn’t go to the Gulf.

    In a New York Times “White House Memo”, Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote

    Mr. Obama arrived here Friday for a summer weekend getaway with his wife, Michelle, and their daughters, Malia, 12, and Sasha, 9 — a precursor to a longer family vacation they are planning next month on Martha’s Vineyard. But what sounds like a much-needed family escape from the literal and political heat of Washington to some sounds like hypocrisy to others, given recent statements by both the president and first lady urging Americans to spend their vacation time and money along the shores of the oil-stricken Gulf of Mexico.

    “Michelle Obama: Take your Vacation in the Gulf, America — If You Need Us, We’ll be In Maine,” blared the headline on the Web site of Michelle Malkin, the conservative commentator, on Monday, the day Mrs. Obama toured the gulf. ABC News served up similar, if more muted fare: “First Lady Encourages Americans to Vacation on Gulf — But Obamas Head to Maine Instead.”

    A trip to the Gulf Coast, of course, would hardly be much of a vacation for Mr. Obama, whose political fortunes were undercut by the spill. But the flap does point up how politically fraught the modern presidential vacation — or, for that matter, presidential leisure time in general — has become.

    Of course, if they did go to the Gulf Coast for a vacation scheduling no public events, everyone would be upset by their not having helped clean up a beach or visiting fishermen who are not working because of the spill.  It would not, as the Memo points out, have been a vacation.  This is a trip with their children, Ms. Malkin.  Remember family values?   Both the President and First Lady have gone often to the Gulf and they will be returning many times, I’m sure.

    The Memo continues

    Bill Clinton and his family traveled to Jackson Hole, Wyo., in the summer of 1996 after polling showed that Americans viewed Martha’s Vineyard as too elitist. George W. Bush caught so much flak for spending a month at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., in the summer of 2001, said his former press secretary, Ari Fleischer, that his staff printed T-shirts listing all the work-related side trips he had taken. Mr. Fleischer may disagree with Mr. Obama’s policies, but he said he was protective of the president’s right to “recharge his batteries” wherever it suited him.

    “I just think that people should leave the president alone and not make a political issue of where he takes vacation or how he takes vacation,” Mr. Fleischer said. “He and his family are perfectly entitled to do whatever works for them.”

    President Obama greeted people after walking along a trail on Cadillac Mountain.

    One thing I have noticed is that President Obama likes ice cream.  He seem to gravitate to ice cream shops wherever he goes.

    Once last thing:  While looking through  pictures of the trip to put in this entry, I kept  spotting Reggie Love.  Does he ever get to go on a vacation by himself? 

    The pictures are from the Boston Globe and the New York Times.

    Keeping the Faith

    I’ve been thinking about the mid-term elections a lot recently.  With financial reform and health care reform passed, President Obama has kept two big promises.  Of course, neither bill is perfect.  But both are steps in the right direction.  So when his poll numbers go down anyway and the pundits think mid-term election disaster it is hard to keep the faith.  In this connection, I’m looking at a piece from last Sunday’s Boston Globe and Paul Krugman’s New York Times column from yesterday.

    The Globe article by Joe Keohane in the Ideas section was titled “How Facts Backfire”  and the role factual information plays in a democracy.  It was pretty bleak and discouraging.

    It’s one of the great assumptions underlying modern democracy that an informed citizenry is preferable to an uninformed one. “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1789. This notion, carried down through the years, underlies everything from humble political pamphlets to presidential debates to the very notion of a free press. Mankind may be crooked timber, as Kant put it, uniquely susceptible to ignorance and misinformation, but it’s an article of faith that knowledge is the best remedy. If people are furnished with the facts, they will be clearer thinkers and better citizens. If they are ignorant, facts will enlighten them. If they are mistaken, facts will set them straight.

    Maybe not. Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

    This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters — the people making decisions about how the country runs — aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

    “The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”

    Paul Krugman wrote Friday about the Republicans proposed economic plan.  Basically tax cuts for the rich and nothing for the rest of us according to Krugman.

    Republicans are feeling good about the midterms — so good that they’ve started saying what they really think. This week the party’s Senate leadership stopped pretending that it cares about deficits, stating explicitly that while we can’t afford to aid the unemployed or prevent mass layoffs of schoolteachers, cost is literally no object when it comes to tax cuts for the affluent

    And that’s one reason — there are others — why you should fear the consequences if the G.O.P. actually does as well in November as it hopes.

    For a while, leading Republicans posed as stern foes of federal red ink. Two weeks ago, in the official G.O.P. response to President Obama’s weekly radio address, Senator Saxby Chambliss devoted his entire time to the evils of government debt, “one of the most dangerous threats confronting America today.” He went on, “At some point we have to say ‘enough is enough.’ ”

    But this past Monday Jon Kyl of Arizona, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, was asked the obvious question: if deficits are so worrisome, what about the budgetary cost of extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, which the Obama administration wants to let expire but Republicans want to make permanent? What should replace $650 billion or more in lost revenue over the next decade?

    His answer was breathtaking: “You do need to offset the cost of increased spending. And that’s what Republicans object to. But you should never have to offset the cost of a deliberate decision to reduce tax rates on Americans.” So $30 billion in aid to the unemployed is unaffordable, but 20 times that much in tax cuts for the rich doesn’t count.

    The next day, Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, confirmed that Mr. Kyl was giving the official party line: “There’s no evidence whatsoever that the Bush tax cuts actually diminished revenue. They increased revenue, because of the vibrancy of these tax cuts in the economy. So I think what Senator Kyl was expressing was the view of virtually every Republican on that subject.”

    The Republicans seem to be making it pretty clear that they want to go back to the old economic way.  Krugman continues

    But we’re talking about voodoo economics here, so perhaps it’s not surprising that belief in the magical powers of tax cuts is a zombie doctrine: no matter how many times you kill it with facts, it just keeps coming back. And despite repeated failure in practice, it is, more than ever, the official view of the G.O.P.

    Why should this scare you? On paper, solving America’s long-run fiscal problems is eminently doable: stronger cost control for Medicare plus a moderate rise in taxes would get us most of the way there. And the perception that the deficit is manageable has helped keep U.S. borrowing costs low.

    But if politicians who insist that the way to reduce deficits is to cut taxes, not raise them, start winning elections again, how much faith can anyone have that we’ll do what needs to be done? Yes, we can have a fiscal crisis. But if we do, it won’t be because we’ve spent too much trying to create jobs and help the unemployed. It will be because investors have looked at our politics and concluded, with justification, that we’ve turned into a banana republic.

    Krugman also looks at the facts

    …But the real news here is the confirmation that Republicans remain committed to deep voodoo, the claim that cutting taxes actually increases revenues.It’s not true, of course. Ronald Reagan said that his tax cuts would reduce deficits, then presided over a near-tripling of federal debt. When Bill Clinton raised taxes on top incomes, conservatives predicted economic disaster; what actually followed was an economic boom and a remarkable swing from budget deficit to surplus. Then the Bush tax cuts came along, helping turn that surplus into a persistent deficit, even before the crash.

    So the facts seem to be higher taxes on higher incomes results in lower deficits and more economic benefit for the rest of us.  But if we believe Joe Keohane, the facts don’t matter much to those that have settled beliefs.

    …Most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas, and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence. In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information. And then we vote.

    This effect is only heightened by the information glut, which offers — alongside an unprecedented amount of good information — endless rumors, misinformation, and questionable variations on the truth. In other words, it’s never been easier for people to be wrong, and at the same time feel more certain that they’re right.

    So how exactly do the Democrats combat all the Republican nonsense?  Not only the Kyl and McConnell quotes that Krugman mentions, but also statements that if the Republicans take over during the mid-terms they will repeal the health and financial reforms.  They know very well that if they try, there will be a Presidential veto and that they will not be able to keep that promise, but despite that fact, they will be believed.  Keohane discusses a number of studies and possibilities but the most immediate solution to this problem seems to be increasing self-esteem.

    One avenue may involve self-esteem. Nyhan worked on one study in which he showed that people who were given a self-affirmation exercise were more likely to consider new information than people who had not. In other words, if you feel good about yourself, you’ll listen — and if you feel insecure or threatened, you won’t. This would also explain why demagogues benefit from keeping people agitated. The more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are.

    Increasing the self-esteem of the American electorate right now means creating jobs and making some radical moves on the economy.  Some of the benefits of the reforms will also begin to impact voters by fall.

    The Democrats should take Eugene Robinson’s advice on Keith Olbermann’s Countdown last night. 

    I mean it’s not like the Democrats don’t have something to run on this fall. So get out there and run on it.

    Gene also said in a recent column in the Washington Post

    One reason I’m not so confident of a Republican blowout in the fall is that while polls clearly show that the country is in an anti-incumbent mood, there’s also considerable evidence that people see the GOP as part of the problem, not part of the solution. A new Post-ABC News poll, for example, showed that 58 percent of voters have “just some” confidence, or even less, in President Obama’s leadership, and that 68 percent were similarly doubtful about the ability of congressional Democrats to lead. But 72 percent had little or no faith in congressional Republicans — which suggests to me that the GOP has work to do before its leaders start picking out new office suites in the Capitol.

    Another reason for caution is that the Republican Party is out of step with the American public on so many issues. Americans want to see unemployment benefits extended. They want tougher financial regulation, complete with consumer protections. Even health-care reform, which the GOP succeeded in painting as the apocalypse, becomes more popular as the months pass and somehow the world does not end.

    I have to believe that there is a large portion of the American electorate that can be swayed by facts.  And the ray of hope is in the slide that Olbermann showed with the results of the NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll which indicates that the majority would like more, not less regulation of Wall Street, big business, the health care industry and, by a big margin, the oil industry.  They won’t get that from the Republicans who want a moratorium on regulation.