Monday, March 31, 2014

Mondays don't always have to get you down. Today was a GREAT one!

There's so much going on today that is wonderful I'm just going to let my twitter timeline tell the story.

Here's the biggest and most important news of the day: Obamacare enrollments are surging.

Of course, this might signal pretty good news as well:

As we pivot away from perpetual war, this happens:

Republicans are asking for trouble on this one:

President Obama proclaims March 31, 2014 to be Cesar Chavez Day.

And of course, it is opening day for baseball lovers. The brilliant, lovable and ever-fierce Justice Sotomayor got in on the action.

And finally, VP Biden celebrated some Rosies.

Did I miss anything?

"As President of the United States, I don't bluff"

Back in March of 2012, Jeffrey Goldberg interviewed President Obama about Iran and Israel just prior to a visit by Netanyahu. In explaining his strategy with respect to Iran and nuclear weapons, the President said this:
It means a political component that involves isolating Iran; it means an economic component that involves unprecedented and crippling sanctions; it means a diplomatic component in which we have been able to strengthen the coalition that presents Iran with various options...and it includes a military component. And I think people understand that.

I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don't bluff. I also don't, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.
Later in the interview, President Obama explained that placing military intervention as the last alternative was not simply because of an aversion to war, it was actually pragmatic.
...our argument is going to be that it is important for us to see if we can solve this thing permanently, as opposed to temporarily. And the only way, historically, that a country has ultimately decided not to get nuclear weapons without constant military intervention has been when they themselves take [nuclear weapons] off the table.
However, he's not about to apologize for doing everything he can to avoid war.
Look, if people want to say about me that I have a profound preference for peace over war, that every time I order young men and women into a combat theater and then see the consequences on some of them, if they're lucky enough to come back, that this weighs on me -- I make no apologies for that. Because anybody who is sitting in my chair who isn't mindful of the costs of war shouldn't be here, because it's serious business. These aren't video games that we're playing here.

Now, having said that, I think it's fair to say that the last three years, I've shown myself pretty clearly willing, when I believe it is in the core national interest of the United States, to direct military actions, even when they entail enormous risks.
Of course anyone who doubted any of this must have missed his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech where he said:
So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another -- that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier's courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause, to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.

So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly inreconcilable truths -- that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly. Concretely, we must direct our effort to the task that President Kennedy called for long ago. "Let us focus," he said, "on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions." 
Those human institutions the President referred to are what is captured in the Obama Doctrine: a strong commitment to international laws/principles, wielding of the power of partnership in defense of those laws, and a diplomacy that works towards meeting national self-interests in an effort to resolve conflicts.

Of course the hawks among us continue to espouse the idea that military dominance is the only tool we ultimately have. And in the midst of the current situation in the Ukraine, they are deeply troubled that in his speech in Brussels, the President said this:
Of course, Ukraine is not a member of NATO, in part because of its close and complex history with Russia. Nor will Russia be dislodged from Crimea or deterred from further escalation by military force.
Unlike his strategy with Iran, in this instance the President has taken military intervention off the table. But Leslie Gelb - like many who are disturbed by that - betray their own embrace of the power of dominance by saying things like this:
Economic sanctions are a good tool, but not a substitute for a credible military option. Even potent economic sanctions over decades have not brought Cuba, Iran, and North Korea to their knees.
The reason economic sanctions haven't worked in Cuba is because they were enacted bilaterally - without the power of partnership. And while the President's goals tend to be focused on finding solutions rather than bringing opponents to their knees, Fareed Zakaria has explained that is precisely why President Obama has used sanctions effectively in Iran.
The Bush administration largely pressured that country bilaterally. The Obama administration was able to get much more effective pressure because it presented Iran’s nuclear program as a threat to global norms of nonproliferation, persuaded the other major powers to support sanctions, enacted them through the United Nations and thus ensured that they were comprehensive and tight.
Contrast that with the ineffective use of military force over the last few decades in Vietnam, Afghanistan (both U.S. and Russia) as well as Iraq, and you begin to see that its difficult to make a pragmatic case for military intervention over territory - beyond even the moral case.

And so once again we see that the President of the United States isn't bluffing. Blustering about the use of military force is off the table at this point. Whether it stays there is an open question that President Putin will have to answer. Right now, the odds look good.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Private charity is no substitute for the commonweal

For decades Republicans have tried to claim that - in their attempts to eliminate the government's social safety net - they are not heartless. They simply suggest that private philanthropy should do the job. Today Michael Hiltzik does a pretty good job of explaining why that won't work. He provides two reasons.
To begin with, charitable organizations typically fall prey to the same economic pressures as the rest of society. "Giving falls when it's needed the most," observes Christopher Wimer, an expert on poverty and the social safety net at Columbia University.

In economic terminology, charitable giving is pro-cyclical, not counter-cyclical, unlike programs such as unemployment insurance and food stamps, which expand to meet rising needs...

Another issue is that philanthropic giving is not synonymous — at all — with helping the needy. Quite the contrary. As charitable giving is structured in the United States today, it too often plays out not as the rich helping out the poor, but as the rich increasing the gap between themselves and the poor...

A 2007 study by Indiana University's Center on Philanthropy found that only 30% of individual giving in the benchmark year of 2005 was aimed at the needs of the poor — including contributions for basic needs, donations to healthcare institutions, for scholarships and allocations from religious groups.
Anyone who had any association with a nonprofit during the 2008/09 Great Recession is very well aware of Hiltzik's first point. As the need for assistance grew, charitable giving plummeted and nonprofit services either scaled back or shut down.

His second point is also critically important. We often hear about how generous people are in the U.S. What we don't hear is a breakdown of where that money goes. The vast majority goes to churches (Hiltzik points out that 3/4 of that goes to "congregational operations") and schools (mostly alma maters). But it gets even worse. As federal, local and state funding is reduced - schools, firefighters and police are setting up their own nonprofits to raise private funding. While those efforts might be noble, unless the pie being divvied up grows, the competition for charitable dollars intensifies.

One point Hiltzik didn't make that should be included is that there simply aren't enough charitable dollars to cover the need. For example, according to Charity Navigator, private donations totaled a little over $300 billion in 2012. Sounds like a lot of money, right? But lets compare that to what the government currently spends on a pretty weak safety net:

Social Security: $773 billion
Medicare, Medicaid and CHIP: $732 billion
Other safety net programs: $411 billion

That pretty much covers the financial side of things. But what about the moral case? Let's take a look at how Dinesh D'Souza makes that argument. (Yeah, I know you don't want to listen to him. But I suspect that most conservatives think he makes the best case out there - so its worth deconstructing.)



D'Souza uses an interesting analogy in which he compares government programs (in this case, Obamacare) to the President holding a gun to our heads. Let's leave aside for a moment the fact that most people using Obamacare will pay for their own health care and think about his argument more generally. What he's saying is that this is a fitting analogy for programs initiated via our democratic republic. Our founding fathers should be turning over in their graves at this bastardization of government "of, by and for the people." But its a pretty typical Republican argument. Remember Ronald Reagan: "Government isn't the solution...its the problem?" IOW, government is "them" not "us."

I have a completely different view of the role of our government - the one outlined by President Obama last year at the Democratic National Convention.
We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk- takers, the entrepreneurs who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system, the greatest engine of growth and prosperity that the world's ever known.

But we also believe in something called citizenship — citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations... 
We, the people — recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only, what's in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That's what we believe.
That belief in self-government says to me that when something is not working in our society, we are obligated to come together as citizens to develop solutions. Government is where we work towards the commonweal: the welfare of the public.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Barack Obama: "What I am constantly trying to do is balance a hard head with a big heart"


I mentioned the other day that, as we begin to see the Obama Doctrine unfold, we can see the roots of President Obama's time spent as a community organizer come into play. In the picture above, the young Chicago lawyer is teaching a class on "power analysis." Right under the title, you'll see that he's talking about "relationships built on self interest." Those are critical components of what we are watching unfold on a global scale right now.

The best article I've seen that unpacks the President's thinking in this area is one that was written by Ryan Lizza way back in 2007 titled The Agitator. It is where I first saw Michelle Obama's great quote: "Barack is not a politician first and foremost. He's a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change." The Obama Doctrine is firmly rooted in what the President learned as a community activist.

Lizza outlines some of the things Barack Obama learned from Gerald Kellman, Mike Kruglik and Gregory Galluzzo - the Saul Alinsky acolytes he worked with when he first moved to Chicago.
The first and most fundamental lesson Obama learned was to reassess his understanding of power. Horwitt says that, when Alinsky would ask new students why they wanted to organize, they would invariably respond with selfless bromides about wanting to help others. Alinsky would then scream back at them that there was a one-word answer: "You want to organize for power!"...

The other fundamental lesson Obama was taught is Alinsky's maxim that self-interest is the only principle around which to organize people... Obama was a fan of Alinsky's realistic streak. "The key to creating successful organizations was making sure people's self-interest was met," he told me, "and not just basing it on pie-in-the-sky idealism. So there were some basic principles that remained powerful then, and in fact I still believe in."
I've written before about the President's affirmation of the power of partnership as an alternative to the power of dominance. We can also see that whether he is working with world leaders to engage them in applying pressure to the offenders of international norms or pointing out to Russia, Iran, Syria that it is in their self interests to cooperate with the global community, it is these principles at work. As an example, here's how the President summarized his analysis of Iran's self interests.
I think it's entirely legitimate to say that this is a regime that does not share our worldview or our values. I do think...that as we look at how they operate and the decisions they've made over the past three decades, that they care about the regime's survival. They're sensitive to the opinions of the people and they are troubled by the isolation that they're experiencing. They know, for example, that when these kinds of sanctions are applied, it puts a world of hurt on them. They are able to make decisions based on trying to avoid bad outcomes from their perspective. So if they're presented with options that lead to either a lot of pain from their perspective, or potentially a better path, then there's no guarantee that they can't make a better decision.
Many pundits have claimed that Europe's economy is too tied to Russia for them to ever participate in sanctions that would be onerous enough to have an impact. The President's entire speech in Brussels was aimed at demonstrating how it is in Europe's self interest to risk the possibility of short-term sacrifice for long-term gain. Here's how he ended that speech.
If we hold firm to our principles, and are willing to back our beliefs with courage and resolve, then I have no doubt that hope will overcome fear, and freedom will continue to triumph over tyranny – because that is what forever stirs the human heart.
That quote points out a way in which Lizza says that Barack Obama parted ways with Alinsky.
But, although he was a first-class student of Alinsky's method, Obama also saw its limits. It appealed to his head but not his heart.
We know from the President's biography that while he was at Columbia he became somewhat of a hermit as he sorted out his own identity and place in the world. In trying to reconcile his roots as the son of a Kansas mother and Kenyan father, he found that place deep inside himself - no matter the particulars of genetics and geography - we all share as human beings. That is the heart of humanity's interconnectedness around which President Obama continually asks us to gather to sort through our conflicts. It is the basis of our partnership.

And so, in combining the realist's analysis of power and self interest with the idealist's vision of a core human connection, Barack Obama ended his conversation with Lizza saying: "What I am constantly trying to do is balance a hard head with a big heart." I believe that is the balance that is so profoundly powerful in speeches like the one he gave in Brussels.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Speaking of heros...

I've just got to drop this one in here:
The NAACP has dedicated this final full week of March to celebrating women who put their lives on the line for justice. In doing so, these courageous, brilliant, revolutionary women shook the world and reshaped the United States.

Women like liberation activist and internationalist, Vicki Ama Garvin, Black Panther Party leaders; Ericka Huggins, Kathleen Cleaver and Elaine Brown, and lawyer, activist, civil rights advocate, and feminist Florynce Kennedy.

Yesterday, they honored...
Denise Oliver Velez - applied cultural anthropologist, writer and revolutionary--was a part of the Young Lord's Party, which rallied a crew of women that fought for open enrollment in the City Colleges of New York, for the formation of Puerto Rican Studies Programs and bi-lingual education in grade schools.
I am honored and humbled to be able to call Denise a friend. She has more passion, intelligence, heart and soul than anyone I have ever met. And every time I listen to her talk or read what she has written, I'm guaranteed to learn something.

Si Se Puede to you too...my friend!!!!!!!

Honoring a Hero

Back in November 1992 I was attending a 3-day seminar on "Undoing Racism." On the second day one of my African American friends who was also participating arrived in a suit and tie. During a break I asked him why he was so dressed up. He said it was to honor the opening day of the movie Malcolm X. That simple act of solidarity struck me so deeply that I remember it vividly over 20 years later.

And so I want to join all the folks who are finding ways to honor another great American hero today.

Si Se Puede 

Can we talk? High-fiving Coates and Chait (updated x4)

No one is going to accuse me of breaking any news when I say that our politics has become polarized. When we're not retreating into information bubbles that confirm what we already think (ie, epistemic closure) we're yelling ad hominems at each other and then storming off in outrage. Years ago then-Senator Barack Obama warned us that this played completely into a conservative agenda.
A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate.
That's exactly why I want to notice and applaud the conversation that is currently underway between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait. Yes, they are disagreeing with each other. And not only that - we're watching a black man and a white man have a conversation about race in America. The odds that this happens in a way that informs rather than inflames are minimal at best. And yet that's exactly what we're seeing.

In case you haven't been following along, it all started when Ta-Nehisi Coates reacted to Rep. Paul Ryan's statements about a culture in our inner cities that doesn't value the importance of work. Here are the links for how it has progressed from there (so far):

Jonathan Chait

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Jonathan Chait 

I promise that if you read all four articles, you are going to learn some things about race in America. But I also have this warning: if you go in thinking its time to dig in your heels and take one person's side over the other one - you're going to miss out on a lot. As Nezua wrote a while ago, I encourage you to let go of your surety and exist for just a moment on the "purpling beaches of dusk."
...life is not like a series of books in a course on …anything. It fluctuates. We fluctuate. We are not a being, but a becoming, as Friedrich once said. And sometimes ideas are hammered out and we draw lines and walls and are told we fall on one side or the other and so do our thoughts and so does all that follows from them…and so it goes. We buy into these illusory borders, too...

I am far more comfortable navigating the in-between than I am in any Place. I like no thing as much as the coming and going from one to another. It is on the purpling beaches of dusk and the roseing gauze of dawn that my true eye shines lidless and I see so much more than in broad daylight. In the falling away of my tired husk I remember my shape can only be held temporarily. And to cling too tightly to it is to rot.

Being sure is but the borderwall we place around a heart to ward off the skinstripping wind of the next living moment.
I really hope that Coates responds and that this conversation continues. That's only partly because in his latest response Chait brought up the article I wanted to ask Coates about. But WAY more important than that is the fact that this back-and-forth is exactly what a conversation over disagreements should look like. We see far to little of that these days.

Update 3/30/14: Coates has written his next response. I'm going to keep updating this post so that I can compile the entire conversation here.

Update 3/31/14: Chait responds.

Update 4/3/14: A little something from me on all this

Update 4/4/14: The latest from Coates

Fareed Zakaria on a 21st century foreign policy

I've been reading responses to President Obama's speech in Brussels and various people commenting on the emerging Obama Doctrine. It should come as no surprise that spokesperson for the neocons in the Bush/Cheney administration - Condoleeza Rice - doesn't get it. When the President calls on the global community to act in partnership, she sees a vacuum of leadership because she is wedded to the idea of dominance as the only source of power. On the other hand, Russian apologist Roger Cohen seems to be saying that until our union is perfected, we can't speak to our ideals in the world. What neither of these critics provide is a real alternative addressing the situations that confront us at the moment - like the one in Ukraine.

One writer that is struggling to understand is Michael Cohen. Where he stumbles a bit is that he limits himself by trying to fit President Obama into the framework of an either/or split between a "realist or internationalist."
For five years, President Obama has often struggled in finding the right mix between leading from behind and leaning in.

Yesterday, however, in calling for the US and Europe to uphold the instrumentals of global peace and security, while eschewing provocative steps or inflammatory rhetoric, Obama came pretty close to finding that foreign policy sweet spot.
Too many people can't grasp the both/and of a President who, for five years aggressively went after al Qaeda AND wants to work in partnership with the rest of the world to deal with the global challenges we face with Syria, Iran and Russia.

One person who demonstrates that he understands what President Obama means by a 21st century foreign policy is Fareed Zakaria. He opens his argument with data supporting the President's claim that working together via partnership has produced gains that were previously impossible in an era of domination (I'll let you go read the specifics). Here's how he summarizes:
Many aspects of international life remain nasty and brutish, and it is easy to sound tough and suggest that you understand the hard realities of power politics. But the most astonishing, remarkable reality about the world is how much things have changed, especially since 1945...

There is an evolving international order with new global norms making war and conquest increasingly rare. We should strengthen, not ridicule, it. Yes, some places stand in opposition to this trend — North Korea, Syria, Russia. The people running these countries believe that they are charting a path to greatness and glory. But they are the ones living in a fantasy world.
As we watch various politicians and pundits respond to the Obama Doctrine, we will increasingly see those who understand the "evolving international order" clash with those in our own country who continue to live in a fantasy world. It is important that we understand that clash and are able to articulate what is at stake.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Obama Doctrine

After the decision was made to intervene militarily in Libya, some pundits made the case that an Obama Doctrine was evident and called it "leading from behind." I'd suggest that is a small part of an emerging Obama Doctrine - but not the heart of things. As the President openly takes the lead on responding to the situation in the Ukraine, we can see how flawed it was.

Watching President Obama deal with various foreign policy challenges over the last year, a much more comprehensive view of how he approaches these things is evident. His North Star when it comes to evaluating situations and developing a strategy to deal with them is three-fold.

First of all, he bases his reaction on international laws, principles and ideals. This is where so many people misjudged his intentions in Syria. As we saw, he routinely rejected the advise of many (including those in his cabinet) to get involved militarily in that country's civil war. The pragmatist in him knows there's no workable solution there. But when Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, it was a serious breach of international law. That was the basis for his attempts to rally the international community to respond. When Putin realized that the President was serious, he counseled his ally Assad to give up those chemical weapons. Syria is in the process of doing that as we speak.

When it comes to the current situation in the Ukraine, here's how President Obama articulated that yesterday in Brussels:
...our enduring strength is also reflected in our respect for an international system that protects the rights of both nations and people -- a United Nations and a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international law and the means to enforce those laws.

But we also know that those rules are not self-executing.

They depend on people and nations of good will continually affirming them.

And that’s why Russia’s violation of international law, its assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, must be met with condemnation, not because we’re trying to keep Russia down, but because the principles that have meant so much to Europe and the world must be lifted up.
Secondly, when it comes to a strategy to uphold those international laws and principles, President Obama continually affirms the power of partnership. Whether it involves military action to stop a genocide in Libya or economic sanctions that bring Iran to the negotiating table, President Obama has taken the lead in bringing the weight of a united global community to bear on the offenders of international norms. As he said in Cairo, that is a strategy particularly suited to our interconnectedness in the 21st century.
For we have learned from recent experience that when a financial system weakens in one country, prosperity is hurt everywhere. When a new flu infects one human being, all are at risk. When one nation pursues a nuclear weapon, the risk of nuclear attack rises for all nations. When violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains, people are endangered across an ocean. When innocents in Bosnia and Darfur are slaughtered, that is a stain on our collective conscience. That is what it means to share this world in the 21st century. That is the responsibility we have to one another as human beings.

And this is a difficult responsibility to embrace. For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes -- and, yes, religions -- subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests. Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.
Thirdly, as the weight of global pressure mounts on the offenders of international law, President Obama continually affirms that it is in their own best interests to change course. In other words, he always offers a way out. Here's how he talked about that with respect to the negotiations with Iran.
I think it's entirely legitimate to say that this is a regime that does not share our worldview or our values. I do think...that as we look at how they operate and the decisions they've made over the past three decades, that they care about the regime's survival. They're sensitive to the opinions of the people and they are troubled by the isolation that they're experiencing. They know, for example, that when these kinds of sanctions are applied, it puts a world of hurt on them. They are able to make decisions based on trying to avoid bad outcomes from their perspective. So if they're presented with options that lead to either a lot of pain from their perspective, or potentially a better path, then there's no guarantee that they can't make a better decision.
And here is how he described the message to Russia yesterday.
But with time, so long as we remain united, the Russian people will recognize that they cannot achieve the security, prosperity and the status that they seek through brute force.

And that’s why throughout this crisis we will combine our substantial pressure on Russia with an open door for diplomacy.

I believe that for both Ukraine and Russia, a stable peace will come through de-escalation, a direct dialogue between Russia and the government of Ukraine and the international community, monitors who can ensure that the rights of all Ukrainians are protected, a process of constitutional reform within Ukraine and free and fair elections this spring.
Those three steps encompass the Obama Doctrine as it relates to U.S. involvement in global affairs. It is a total rejection of the isolation espoused by libertarians and the reliance on military dominance of the neocons. In other words, it is a strong, principled foreign policy that can be embraced by any Democrat/liberal/progressive.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

President Obama's speech in Brussels - one of the most important of his presidency

One of the things we know from reading about President Obama's life story is that while he was practicing law in Chicago, he taught classes on the topic of "power." I've always wished that either he or someone who attended one would outline the content of what he taught. Perhaps the President will do that once his second term is over. He doesn't tend to speak directly about the topic, but from listening to him refer to it in other contexts, what I've deduced is that he embraces the power of partnership as the alternative to our more traditional concept of the power of domination.

Today the President began his speech in Brussels with a history lesson on the power of partnership vs the power of domination.
Throughout human history, societies have grappled with the question of how to organize themselves – the proper relationship between the individual and the state; and the best means to resolve inevitable conflicts between states. And it was here in Europe, through centuries of struggle—through war and Enlightenment, repression and revolution—that a particular set of ideals began to emerge. The belief that through conscience and free will, each of us has the right to live as we choose. The belief that power is derived from the consent of the governed, and that laws and institutions should be established to protect that understanding. Those ideas eventually inspired a band of colonists across an ocean, and they wrote them into the Founding documents that still guide America today, including the simple truth that all men—and women—are created equal.

But those ideals have also been tested – and threatened – by an older, more traditional view of power. This alternative vision argues that ordinary men and women are too small-minded to govern their own affairs, and that order and progress can only come when individuals surrender their rights to an all-powerful sovereign. Often, it roots itself in the notion that by virtue of race or faith or ethnicity, some are inherently superior to others, and that individual identity must be defined by “us” versus “them” or that national greatness must flow – not by what a people stand for, but by what they are against.

In many ways, the history of Europe in the 20th century represented the ongoing clash of these two sets of ideas, both within nations and among nations.
President Obama went on to use that frame to describe what has happened - not just in Europe - but around the globe since WWII. This is an amazing statement coming from an American President!
This story of human progress was by no means limited to Europe. Indeed, the ideals that came to define our alliance also inspired movements across the globe - among those very people who had too often been denied their full rights by Western powers. After the Second World War, people from Africa to India threw off the yoke of colonialism to secure their independence. In America, citizens took freedom rides and endured beatings to put an end to segregation, and to secure their civil rights. As the Iron Curtain fell here in Europe, the iron fist of Apartheid was unclenched, and Nelson Mandela emerged from prison to lead a multi-racial democracy. Latin American nations rejected dictatorship and built new democracies, and Asian nations showed that development and democracy could go hand in hand.
As someone who appreciates looking at the world through a big picture lens, that is a pretty comprehensive view of the struggles that encompassed the last half of the 20th century. He then used that frame to demonstrate that the actions of President Putin in the Ukraine are an attempt to revive the power of dominance - once again suggesting that he is operating from a 20th century approach in a 21st century world.

He laid the outcome of the ongoing struggle between these two approaches squarely on our shoulders. And yes, I LOVED his reference to his Kenyan father and the time he spent growing up in Indonesia - making the subtle point that he understands that the U.S. and Europe have not always been on the right side of this struggle.
And it is you, the young people of Europe, who will help decide which way the currents of history will flow. Don’t think for a moment that your own freedom, your own prosperity, your own moral imagination is bound by the limits of your community or even your country. You can choose a better history. That’s what Europe tells us. That’s what the American experience is all about.

I say this as the President of a country that looked to Europe for the values that are written into our founding documents, and which spilled blood to ensure that those values could endure on these shores. I also say that as the son of a Kenyan whose grandfather was a cook for the British, and as a person who once lived in Indonesia as it emerged from colonialism. The ideals that unite us matter equally to the young people of Boston or Brussels, Jakarta or Nairobi, Krakow or Kyiv.

In the end, the success of our ideals comes down to us— including the example of our own lives; our own societies...

If we hold firm to our principles, and are willing to back our beliefs with courage and resolve, then I have no doubt that hope will overcome fear, and freedom will continue to triumph over tyranny – because that is what forever stirs the human heart.
I believe this is one of the most important speeches of Obama's presidency. For me it ranks right up there with his speech on race as well as the one's he gave in Cairo and Copenhagen. He is doing all he can to prod and inspire us as individuals, as a country and as a global community to leave behind the antiquated ideas about dominance and find our success in the power of partnership.

As Florida rejects funding from Obamacare - children die

What I'm about to write about will likely be uncomfortable to read. But it is because of our fundamental humanity that we want to turn away from stories like this - we care and it hurts like hell to hear this kind of thing. We'd rather not know.

But this story isn't happening in some far-away country where we are more or less helpless to change things. Its about something going on in the state of Florida (and other states) as a direct result of Republican attempts to demonize government and cut off its resources. So I'm going to ask you to risk a few tears in order to inform yourself and then get busy changing things.

Carl Hiaasen tells the story in the Miami Herald.
Most of the dead are babies and toddlers, and they perish in horrible ways — starved, punched, shaken, burned, thrown from cars or simply forgotten. There’s nothing left to protect them except the state of Florida, which fails over and over.

Kyla Joy Hall was beaten to death by her father at age 10 months. Eight months earlier, she’d been hospitalized with multiple fractures and a bleeding brain, yet no one got arrested.

Tavont’ae Gordon was smothered at age 2 months while sleeping on a couch with her mother, who was high on coke. Tavont’ae’s sister, Tariji, was removed from the home by child welfare officials, but she was later returned when Rachel Gordon said she’d kicked her drug habit.

A few months later, Tariji was killed by a blow to the head and buried in a shallow grave by her mother, now in jail.

Since January 2008, at least 477 children have died for no other reason than being overlooked by the system. Their families were known to the Department of Children & Families, yet they’d been allowed to remain with reckless parents in high-risk homes.
No, I'm not blaming Republicans for parents who abuse their children. But when Governor Rick Scott and the Republican-controlled Florida legislature cut funding for government services and turn down federal funding for child abuse prevention programs simply because its part of the Affordable Care Act - I sure as hell will blame them for that.

As Hiaasen points out, the budget for Florida's Department of Children and Families (responsible for child protection) has been shrunk by $100 million in this fiscal year alone. But that's not the only culprit.
Of the 477 child deaths during the last six years, 323 involved alcohol or drug use by parents or caregivers. Meanwhile, legislators have cut funds for drug treatment.
When we talk about cuts to state budgets, Democrats usually bring up teachers, cops and firefighters to make their case about the importance of government services. That's because these children and families live in the shadows and we'd rather not talk about all this. Oh...we can get enraged when Republicans take food from poor children, but when they slash funding that might prevent their death - not so much. And of course, reading this as SCOTUS considers the claims of Hobby Lobby that including contraceptives in their health care plans somehow violates their moral principles shows the utter hypocrisy of the conservative position that they actually care about the lives of children.

The reality is that protecting these children is the responsibility of government - not charity. That's because their deaths - whether intended or the result of gross neglect - are murder. I'm relieved that Hiaasen is reporting that at least one Florida Republican seems to be getting the message.
One person who’s been paying attention is Senate President Don Gaetz, a Republican from Niceville, who acknowledged that it will take “tens of millions of dollars” to start making DCF function as the law intends.

“I think in child welfare we have gone on the cheap, and I think that’s been a mistake,” he said.

A terrible, frequently fatal mistake.
I have a hard time calling the death of 477 children a "mistake." I think a term like "criminal negligence" would be a better fit. Until we do a better job of protecting these children, we're all complicit.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

What more could a progressive ask of a president?

I've never claimed that President Obama is a progressive. I think the term is outdated and confusing. The President has always been clear - he's more interested in what works than he is in partisanship or labels. That's what makes him a pragmatist.

And yet, when it comes to issues that progressives have traditionally cared about - I'm wondering what more any president could do to address them. Let's take a look at what has been happening lately.

In Congress these days, you have the President and Democrats fighting for an extension of unemployment benefits, raising the minimum wage, and passing comprehensive immigration reform (including a pathway to citizenship). On the docket is the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (EDNA), which would make it illegal to discriminate against people who are LGBT. Did you catch VP Biden's speech about that at the Human Rights Campaign Gala this week? If not, check it out.

Meanwhile, over the last few days we've heard more about this administration's continuing work on federal prison reform and ending the school-to-prison pipeline.

Last night we learned that President Obama will call for reform of the metadata program operated by NSA. As I wrote, that is one powerful Aikido move he just pulled.

Today, we have the two women he appointed to the Supreme Court joining forces with Justice Ruth Ginsburg to battle attempts to deny women access to contraceptives. No, we won't know the outcome of that case for awhile, but this President has had two openings on the court to fill. And he chose Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Bravo!!!

Speaking of women, check out this article in Politico (yes, Politico) about President Obama's "power trio" - National Security Adviser Susan Rice, counsel Kathy Ruemmler and homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco. What do you know - he didn't even need "binders."

But I suspect that the most profound progressive change President Obama is implementing was articulated in response to a ridiculously stupid question from Jonathan Karl at today's press briefing in the Hague. The President used the opportunity to lay out a foreign policy based on global partnership rather than U.S. military dominance.
The truth of the matter is that the world has always been messy. What the United States has been consistently able to do, and we continue to be able to do, is to mobilize the international community around a set of principles and norms, and where our own self defense may not be involved, we may not act militarily - that doesn't mean we don't steadily push against those forces that would violate those principles and ideals that we care about...
The point is that there are always going to be bad things that happen around the world. And the United States - as the most powerful nation in the world - understandably is looked to for solutions to those problems. What we have to make sure we're doing is that we are putting all elements of our power behind finding solutions, working with our international partners, standing up for those principles and ideals in a clear way. There are going to be moments where military action is appropriate. There are going to be times when that is not in the national security interests of the United States - or some of our partners. But that doesn't mean we're not going to continue to make the effort or speak clearly about what we think is right and wrong. And that's what we've done.
Unless you espouse the isolationist views of libertarians, I cannot imagine a more progressive statement about the role of the United States in foreign affairs. I might also add that these comments were made at the third summit on nuclear security initiated by this President.

And so, whether you want to give him the label or not, a simple review of the news over this past week has me wondering what more a progressive could ask of a president.

Monday, March 24, 2014

President Obama and the Aikido Way on Surveillance (updated)

President Obama has prepared a proposal about changes to the bulk telephone data collection program currently operated by the NSA.
The Obama administration is preparing to unveil a legislative proposal for a far-reaching overhaul of the National Security Agency’s once-secret bulk phone records program in a way that — if approved by Congress — would end the aspect that has most alarmed privacy advocates since its existence was leaked last year, according to senior administration officials.

Under the proposal, they said, N.S.A. would end its systematic collection of data about Americans’ calling habits. The records would be stay in the hands of phone companies, which would not be required to retain the data for any longer than they normally would. And the N.S.A. could obtain specific records only with permission from a judge, using a new kind of court order.
You'll likely hear some folks respond by saying this isn't a big deal. In a way, they're right. One way to understand that is to remember how Mark Ambinder described the program months ago.
One official likened the NSA's collection authority to a van full of sealed boxes that are delivered to the agency. A court order...permits the transfer of custody of the "boxes." But the NSA needs something else, a specific purpose or investigation, in order to open a particular box.
The basics of the President's proposal will be that the NSA leave that van full of sealed boxes with the phone companies and get a warrant (currently the FISA court has to approve the searches) to obtain specific call content.

But this move is classic Obama. He set the tone for this early on in his interview with Charlie Rose about the surveillance programs.
I've got to tell you though Charlie, I think this is a healthy thing because its a sign of maturity that this debate would not have been taking place 5 years ago. And I welcome it...its useful to have a bunch of critics out there who are checking government power and who are making sure we are doing things right so that if we've triple-checked how we're operating any one of these programs, lets go quadruple-check it. I'm comfortable with that and I'm glad to see that we are starting to do that.
I'm sure there will be some who will respond to the President's proposal by suggesting that Snowden/Greenwald attacked this administration and "won." That's because they've invested their personal ego in a win/lose game. That is not how President Obama approaches things. His ego is not involved. That allows him to follow the Aikido Way:
There are no kicks and no punches within Aikido itself...Instead, there is an emphasis on blending with a partner's attack and the use of techniques to lead that attack safely to a conclusion that is good for everyone.
Well done, Mr. President.

Now, about that whole "if approved by Congress" thing. Paging Senator Paul...Senator Rand Paul to the white courtesy phone, please."

;-)

UPDATE: This morning we get Glenn Greenwald's response to the President's proposal. Given that it neutralizes Greenwald's line of attack on the metadata program, other than some nonsense about whether or not President Obama really means it, he decides to forgo his Obama Derangement Syndrome and go after Democratic partisans with: Obama's new NSA proposal and Democratic partisan hackery.
That puts hard-core Obama loyalists and pro-NSA Democrats – the ones that populate MSNBC – in an extremely difficult position. They have spent the last 10 months defending the NSA (i.e., defending Obama) by insisting that the NSA metadata program is both reasonable and necessary to Keep Us Safe™. But now Obama claims he wants to end that very same program. So what will they do?

If they had even an iota of integrity or intellectual honesty, they would instantly and aggressively condemn Obama. After all, he’s now claiming to want to end a program that they have been arguing for months is vital in Keeping Us Safe™. Wouldn’t every rational person, by definition, criticize a political leader who wants to abolish a program that they believe is necessary to stop terrorism and preserve national security?

But that’s not what will happen.
LOL! I can't speak for the other "hacks," but my response to the Snowden revelations about the metadata program were never about it being necessary to keep us safe. For me it has always been about the lies and spin Snowden/Greenwald perpetuated about it - like the time Snowden said this:
I, sitting at my desk could wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email.
That was NEVER true. As the President told Charlie Rose, these programs were triple-checked and now he's proposing a quadruple-check.

But I'm fine with Greenwald going after "partisans" like me. I've been watching the Aikido master take these kinds of things on for 6 years now. Time for me to demonstrate that I've learned a thing or two. So I'll just point out where Greenwald is 100% right and some in his "fan club" are needing correction:
Yes, obviously.

This one goes out to the GOP "outreach" efforts

I KNOW WHAT YOUR DOIN', AND ITS NOT GONNA WORK THIS TIME!

Nuclear Security Summits: An Obama Initiative

Today, as world leaders gather in The Hague for the third Nuclear Security Summit, it is important to note that these meetings were initiated by President Obama.
In his 2009 Prague speech, President Obama stated that nuclear terrorism “is the most immediate and extreme threat to global security.” To mitigate this threat, the President urged that “we act with purpose and without delay,” announcing “a new international effort to secure vulnerable nuclear material around the world” that would begin with “a Global Summit on Nuclear Security that the United States will host.”

By focusing high-level attention on the threat of nuclear terrorism, the Nuclear Security Summits are designed to energize, enhance, empower, and elevate the many existing multilateral, cooperative institutions and structures aimed at securing nuclear materials and preventing nuclear smuggling. In March 2010, nearly fifty heads of state gathered for the inaugural Summit in Washington, the largest gathering of world leaders since the founding of the United Nations. A second Summit was held in Seoul in 2012, a third is set to take place in The Hague in 2014, and as President Obama announced in Berlin in June 2013, his intention is to host a fourth Summit in the United States in 2016.
In terms of results from these summits, here's a summary:
According to research organizations that track Summit commitments, 95 percent of commitments made in Washington have been completed as of 2013. Tangible nuclear security achievements include:
  • Removal and/or disposition of over 2.8 metric tons of vulnerable HEU and plutonium material.
  • Completely removing HEU from 11 countries – Austria, Chile, the Czech Republic, Libya, Mexico, Romania, Serbia, Turkey, Ukraine, Vietnam, – and Hungary.
  • Verified shutdown or successful conversion to low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel use of 24 HEU research reactors and isotope production facilities in 15 countries, including Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China, the Czech Republic, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
  • Completion of physical security upgrades at 32 buildings storing weapons-usable fissile materials.
  • Installation of radiation detection equipment at 250 international border crossings, airports, and seaports to combat illicit trafficking in nuclear materials.
This kind of progress is rarely noted when people talk about President Obama's accomplishments. But as VP Biden would say...its a BFD!

Where did the time go?

Then...


And now...

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Let's bust some memes about the 2014 election

The internet is abuzz with developing memes about the 2014 midterm elections. Liberal pundits are tripping over themselves to give President Obama and the Democrats advice about how to minimize (or gawd help us, overcome) their losses. Purists are busy blaming the President for not appealing to them and pragmatists are gearing up to blame the purists for staying home on election day.

My message would be: NONE OF THIS IS HELPING!!!!!

Its true...Democrats face an uphill battle in 2014 when it comes to Congressional races. There are 3 reasons for this:
  1. Gerrymandered Republican House districts,
  2. Almost all of the contested Senate races are in red states, and
  3. The Obama coalition hasn't demonstrated that they will turn out for midterms the way the teapublicans do.
The one and ONLY thing that will make a difference this time around is if we change the trajectory of #3 above by getting people out to vote.

It is a fact that the majority of the American people support the Democratic agenda over the Republican agenda. If we get more of them out to vote this November...we win! End.of.story.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Why I support President Obama - in photos

Earlier today I wrote about why I support President Barack Obama. Here is that same story in pictures.

Photobucket
















What Ta-Nehisi Coates got right

In his original article responding to Rep. Paul Ryan's remarks about the lack of a work culture amongst inner city men (he's since written a second), Ta-Nehisi Coates makes what I think is his most important point here:
...is the culture of West Baltimore actually less virtuous than the culture of Wall Street? I've seen no such evidence.
It reminded me of something Derrick Jensen wrote in his book The Culture of Make Believe (p. 278-279).
I've heard it said that approximately the same number of people control 95 percent of the world's economy as are in solitary confinement in the United States. There can be little doubt as to which group has killed the greater number of people.
The truth is - if we want to go on moralizing about dangerous cultures, how about the one that developed in the Bush/Cheney White House that brought us rationales for torture and a war based on lies? Of course that says nothing about a culture that used every tool available to it to categorize black and native people as subhuman in order to justify slavery and genocide.

So yes...if we are going to look at cultures that breed violence, fear and hatred - lets go the whole nine yards. Why stop with black inner city men?

I'll tell you why. Its because the neanderthals like Paul Ryan and Charles Murray who spew this stuff are too afraid to look in the mirror and see themselves. They don't have an ounce of the kind of courage displayed by Lucia McBath. They're cowards. End of story.

Why I became an "Obamabot"

Sometimes I think about what goes into a decision about whether or not to support a political candidate. It seems to me that many of us argue about this without ever acknowledging all the factors that go into that decision. The fact is that people prioritize these factors differently, but that is rarely taken into consideration.

Since Barack Obama was elected president, his critics on both the left and right often accuse his defenders of engaging in blind support of him no matter what he does. They call us Obamabots. I'd like to suggest that is because they think we support the President solely based on his position on issues. I'm here to say that's not the case for me.

There is a lot of truth in the old adage: If two people agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary. That's what allows Democrats to consider FDR one of our greatest presidents, even though he is responsible for the Japanese internment camps. Its also why I never wavered in my support of Paul Wellstone - even when he voted for the Defense of Marriage Act.

But beyond an acceptance of the fact there there is never going to be a candidate who aligns with me perfectly on every issue, there's something else that comes into play in my decision about whether or not to support a candidate/politician. Even more important to me are factors like: what are their values, what is their decision-making process, and what kind of person are they?

I often find that this one is politically incorrect to talk about. But to take a stark example, what concerns me most is having a sociopath like Dick Cheney or Newt Gingrich anywhere close to the White House. Less extreme, but still serious, is the prospect of a president who is volatile emotionally (John McCain) or who lacks any curiosity (George W. Bush).

Another consideration involves the fact that no matter how we've lined up the issues and weighed our priorities, they rarely match up completely with what a politician will actually face in office. For example, if you were trying to decide who to support in the 2008 presidential primaries, would you have guessed that the person who won would have to deal with an Arab Spring in the Middle East? In 2000 was your decision based on how a candidate would respond to 9/11? Not unless you are a really good clairvoyant.

In this regard, I often think about how President Obama talks about the fact that the "easy decisions" never reach his desk. If there is an obvious right and wrong, someone else usually makes the call before it gets to him. What a president is faced with is making choices between hard alternatives that often come down to bad and worse (ie, Syria). Or between high risk good and low risk neutral/bad.

For example, think about what faced President Obama when Scott Brown was elected and the Democrats lost the super majority in the Senate. The story is that almost everyone in his administration counseled him to drop health care reform and try to piecemeal some solutions with Republicans. He rejected that advice and decided to go for the whole enchilada. And he got it done! Knowing where candidate Obama stood on the issues wouldn't help you understand how he made that call. But it was one of the most important of his presidency.

I remember very well the moment I decided that I was going to go "all in" with Barack Obama. It wasn't because he was any better on the issues than the other candidates in the 2008 primaries. I decided to support him when I learned about how he was running his campaign from folks like Zach Exley. It was a true bottom-up approach. And yes, it was built on the foundation of Respect, Empower, Include. Those are the things I'd been looking for in candidates since I was so profoundly moved as a child by the words of John F. Kennedy: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."

After I made that decision, I watched and learned about his inclusive approach to decision-making,  his ability to focus on a North Star and see the long game, his pragmatic approach that rejects both cynicism and idealism, his tendency to be the counter-puncher, the fact that he thinks before he speaks, the way he values empathy and engages in deep listening, his ability to publicly admit mistakes and move on and yes...the fact that he is completely devoted to his wife and daughters.

Barack Obama is not perfect. Sometimes he gets things wrong and sometimes his strategies fail to accomplish his goals. He is a human being who has taken on what I believe is the toughest job on the planet. What I've identified here is why I usually give him the benefit of the doubt when I don't understand what he's doing or where he's trying to go. I don't "blindly" support him on the issues. That kind of assumption is way too black and white in its approach for my taste. It has more to do with the fact that he shares my values, is profoundly intelligent and is one of the most emotionally mature people I've ever seen in politics.

Because of all that, when I find myself disagreeing with him on an issue, my approach is to first try to understand rather than critique. As I do that, most often I find much more nuance and perspective on the issues than I had originally seen. When making a tough call, nuance and perspective are pretty important ingredients to incorporate. If that makes me a blind supporter...so be it.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The real question is: "How can Democrats win in red states?"

Yesterday Markos Moulitsas wrote an interesting post touting the success of progressives over the last decade. I want to dig into the specifics of what he said in a minute. But first of all, I find it interesting that nowhere in the article does he mention the fact that during that time we elected President Barack Obama...twice. I'm not going to get into why he left that major milestone out. Suffice it to say that it is telling that he made such an obvious glaring omission.

Markos spends most of his time talking about the changes in Congress - primarily in the Senate. He notes that most of the conservative Democrats are gone and highlights the progressive Democrats that have been elected. If those progressives had replaced the conservatives - he might have a point. But the facts are that that has happened once...in Connecticut where Chris Murphy replaced Joe Lieberman.

The remainder of the Senate seats formerly held by conservative Democrats have gone to Republicans. And that's because they are in red states - Montana, Indiana, Louisiana, South Dakota, South Carolina, Nebraska, Arkansas and Georgia. Overall, we've lost 8 Senate seats to Republicans during that time.

On the progressive side, the really good news is that over the last 10 years we have replaced 4 Republicans with progressive Democrats. Here's the catch though...they are all in blue or swing states - Ohio, Minnesota, Oregon and Massachusetts.

Since Markos founded Daily Kos, the stated purpose of the blog has been to "elect more and better Democrats." As we can see from what Markos wrote yesterday, one might be able to say that progressives have had some success in electing better Democrats. The challenge comes in how we go about electing more. Based on his own analysis, we've lost ground on that one (lost 8 and gained 4 for a -4 total).

So the real question becomes: how do we elect more Democrats in red states? The only person I've seen wrestle with that one in a creative way is BooMan. His prognosis is that the conservative Democrats in those states have to rely on corporate money to be competitive. Think Mary Landrieu and oil companies in Louisiana. If we ever want to be competitive in places like that, the only alternative is a candidate with a populist message (ie, raise the minimum wage) that can attract both voters and small donors. That makes sense to me. If you've got any better ideas, I'd love to hear them.

Unless we can come up with a strategy like that, the one thing I DO know is that the status quo for many progressives of simply excoriating conservative Democrats in those red states is not a winning strategy. Better Democrats is good. But especially given the current strategy of total obstruction by Republicans, more Democrats are simply critical.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Melissa Harris-Perry: What would you say to Lucia McBath?

I see that Melissa Harris-Perry has picked up on Ta-Nehisi Coates' suggestion that there is no difference between the words of Rep. Paul Ryan and President Obama. Because both writers brought up Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, I was reminded of a conversation Coates had with Davis' mother, Lucia McBath. It's almost hard not to wince when he recounts her saying this:
"We always encouraged him to be strong. To speak out," McBath told me. "We tried to teach him to speak what you feel and think diplomatically."

She took a moment here. Her voice quavered but held. She said, "Even in that case with Jordan and the car, I think that he was not as diplomatic as he could be. That does not let Michael Dunn off the hook," McBath told me. "But I say to myself as a mother, 'I didn’t teach you and train you to do that. Adults are adults and you are still a child.'"
Can you believe that the mother of a son who has been gunned down needlessly said something like that? Its almost beyond imagination.

But as silly people talk these days about which leaders are strong and which one's are weak, I'm here to tell you that NOTHING says strength to me more than those words from Lucia McBath. She knows without a doubt who is responsible for the death of her son - Michael Dunn. But she is also able to look inside herself and think about whether or not she - as a mother - did all she could to teach her son how to deal with conflict diplomatically.

In other words, holding Dunn responsible doesn't absolve her of the painful task of introspection. We can question the accuracy of her conclusions. But no one can question her resolve!

Basically these either/or frames from people like Coates and Harris-Perry who want to eliminate personal responsibility from the discussion take that kind of humanity out of the conversation. I have much more respect for Ms. McBath's [and President Obama's] ability to do the hard work of seeing the both/and.

"What I learned from President Obama" (updated)

I had to decide whether or not to wait until I'd stopped crying before I posted this video. As regular readers know, I'm a huge fan of Jon Favreau. And no, its not simply because he's so nice to look at. He is an incredibly wise, thoughtful, authentic, and articulate young man! Also - I don't believe I've ever heard anyone capture the essence of Barack Obama any better than he does.

In this speech, Jon gives us a glimpse into how Barack Obama - and his election as President - helped a young man overcome his cynicism and follow his dream of making a difference in the world. As someone entering their "golden years," I'm facing that same thing on the other end of life's journey. Through the tears, I just want to say: "Thank you, Jon. You are an inspiration."

UPDATE: Here's the kind of thing Favreau tells us about the man who is our President. From about 5:55 in the video:
He [President Obama] taught me the value of honesty and authenticity in writing. After delivering one of the most candid, heartfelt, politically risky speeches on race in America, he said to me, "I don't know if you can get elected president saying the things I did about race today. But I also don't know that I deserve to be president if I don't say the things that I believe."
It strikes me that at that moment, Barack Obama didn't know how that speech would be received by voters. He simply knew that he'd said what he believes and was willing to live with the consequences.  That's the definition of authenticity.

What you need to know when you hear conservatives predicting that health insurance premiums will skyrocket

Apparently conservatives have started searching for another doom-and-gloom narrative about Obamacare now that their attempts to drum up individual horror stories has been a bust. From the look of things, I'd suggest that the next line of attack will be to forecast that Obamacare is going to result in skyrocketing health insurance premiums next year. The opening salvo on this one came from Elise Viebeck at The Hill yesterday.

Unfortunately, the first thing you need to know is a little bit about the reporter writing the story. That's what our polarized media means these days. And as BooMan points out, Ms. Viebeck comes from the same "journalism" outfit that has given us Rich Lowry, Jonathan Karl, Ross Douthat, and Dinesh D'Souza.

Now that we have that context, its time to look at the actual arguments she's making. Jonathan Cohn does a comprehensive job of covering that. But I want to emphasize two things.

First, back in December 2011, Rick Ungar told us all about "the bomb buried in Obamacare." Its something called the "medical loss ratio" (MLR). What it means is that - as a result of ACA - insurance companies have to limit the amount of premiums dollars they spend on overhead and profit to 15% (20% for those in the individual market). Anything charged above and beyond that has to be refunded to their customers. Based on how insurance companies operated in the past, this is likely to decimate the resources they put into investigating and denying claims (a HUGE part of their previous business model). That's why Ungar called it a "bomb."

But it also means something else. When insurers set their prices on the exchanges this year, it was nothing more than educated guesswork because they didn't really know who would sign up. But in the future, unless they want to forgo that 15-20% allowed for overhead and profit, the rates will be set based on their medical loss ratio. In other words, it will be a combination of claims plus 15-20% overhead. Done deal. Anyone who leaves this "bomb" out of their analysis (as Ms. Viebeck did) is simply blowing hot air.

Secondly, if the Kaiser Family Foundation report I wrote about previously is any predictor, it might be that the for-profit health insurance giants like WellPoint and UnitedHealthGroup are the ones talking anonymously on background to Ms. Viebeck about big rate increases next year. That's because in many of the states Kaiser looked at, they are losing huge shares of the individual market to nonprofit companies and co-ops charging lower rates (ie, those who can forgo the "profit" part of "overhead and profit"). That could create a whole new kind of "death spiral" for these big companies as they insure a smaller portion of the market and therefore have to adjust their premiums just to capture that 15-20%. The story isn't simply about how many people sign up on the exchanges - its also about what companies they sign up with. IOW, that old free market concept called "competition" might be about to bite the big fellas in the ass.

And so, let me remind you of what Rick Ungar said almost 2 1/2 year ago:
This [MLR] is the true ‘bomb’ contained in Obamacare and the one item that will have more impact on the future of how medical care is paid for in this country than anything we’ve seen in quite some time. Indeed, it is this aspect of the law that represents the true ‘death panel’ found in Obamacare—but not one that is going to lead to the death of American consumers. Rather, the medical loss ratio will, ultimately, lead to the death of large parts of the private, for-profit health insurance industry...

If you thought that the Obama Administration chickened out on pushing the nation in the direction of universal health care for everyone, today [the day the new medical loss ratios went into effect] is the day you begin to understand that the reality is quite the contrary.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A question for Ta-Nehisi Coates

As regular readers here know - I LOVE the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates - even when I don't agree with him. And so after his magnificent response to the guy from Duck Dynasty, I was very anxious to read his take on Rep. Paul Ryan's remarks about the non-existent work culture among lazy black "inner city" men. But I wound up confused by what he had to say.
A number of liberals reacted harshly to Ryan. I'm not sure why. What Ryan said here is not very far from what Bill Cosby, Michael Nutter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama said before him. The idea that poor people living in the inner city, and particularly black men, are "not holding up their end of the deal" as Cosby put it, is not terribly original or even, these days, right-wing. From the president on down there is an accepted belief in America—black and white—that African-American people, and African-American men, in particular, are lacking in the virtues in family, hard work, and citizenship...
Coates calls these people "peddlers of black pathology."

My confusion stems from the fact that, in addition to those he listed as supposedly sounding like Rep. Ryan, I would add one Ta-Nehisi Coates - who once wrote one of the most powerful articles I've ever read on this topic titled: A Culture of Poverty. He begins with a story about how he, as an adult, almost came to blows with someone who challenged his writing. Later he reflects on what triggered that response.
I thought about all of this yesterday while reading this Times' piece on return of the culture of poverty. When we talk "culture," as it relates to African-Americans, we assume a kind of exclusivity and suspension of logic. Stats are whipped out (70 percent of black babies born out of wedlock) and then claims are tossed around cavalierly, (black culture doesn't value marriage.) The problem isn't that "culture" doesn't exist, nor is it that elements of that "culture" might impair upward mobility...

If you are a young person living in an environment where violence is frequent and random, the willingness to meet any hint of violence with yet more violence is a shield...once I learned the lesson, once I was acculturated to the notion that often the quickest way to forestall more fighting, is to fight, I was a believer. And maybe it's wrong to say this, but it made my the rest of my time in Baltimore a lot easier, because the willingness to fight isn't just about yourself, it's a signal to your peer group...

I think one can safely call that an element of a kind of street culture.
It sure sounds like Coates agrees that - for too many African American boys growing up in urban areas - a "street culture" exists that must be overcome if one is to succeed in this world (whatever that means to each individual). So where does he disagree with Rep. Paul Ryan?

I'd suggest that he parts ways with Ryan the same place that President Obama does...in understanding the historical roots of that culture in a way that informs them about solutions. Here's Coates on that one:
The streets are like any other world--we all assume an armor, a garment to suit that world. And indeed, in every world, some people wear the armor better than others, and thus reap considerable social reward...Inducing them, and those in between, to change class, to trade their plate for robes, to trade the broad-sword for a spell-book, is the real work.
That sounds an awful lot like President Obama's "My Brother's Keeper" initiative, doesn't it?

The Great Experiment

In condemning Bill Kristol and the neocons for their foreign policy failures during the Bush/Cheney administration, BooMan sounds a warning to liberals.
Putin's actions in Ukraine do pose a challenge to progressives, who must begin to think carefully about America's proper posture in the world. Where we move back, other powers may move in, and often with unfortunate and destabilizing results.
Whether we like it or not, he's right. For the last 60 years, the United States has either dominated global affairs or shared that stage during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. To simply decry that kind of hegemony is not enough. We have to be realistic about the alternatives.

In order to do that we have to discard the notion that the only form of power is military dominance. Whether its the U.S. in Viet Nam/Iraq or Russia in Afghanistan - we've learned the hard way that military dominance doesn't work.

I thought of that last night when I watched the movie Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom. As the white South African government initially responded to peaceful protests with violence, I thought to myself, "when are people finally going to realize that doesn't work?" It took another 30 years and too many lives, but black South Africans finally prevailed in their quest to rid the country of apartheid.

Throughout the movie, Mandela and members of the ANC made the point that one individual alone did not have the power to change things - but that as 2..3...4...5... came together, they had the power to prevail.

That, my friends, is the lesson we all need to learn - the power of partnership.

At this moment in history, we might only have a couple more years in which the United States is led by someone who understands this.
...human history has often been a record of nations and tribes -- and, yes, religions -- subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests. Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.
As we watch President Obama try to harness that power of partnership to deal with what is happening in the Ukraine, or Iran, or Syria, we are watching a Great Experiment at work (the one originally envisioned by FDR). Can the nations of the world come together to deal with these challenges via partnership rather than letting them escalate into military confrontations where the elites of the world send their people to die as they play out their power games?

We know that the neocons haven't learned this lesson. But what about American progressives? Do we see the Great Experiment at play and recognize what is at stake? Or are we too enamored with our cynicism to see what's going on?