Serving the Poor

The “trickle-down” theory: the principle that the poor, who must subsist on table scraps dropped by the rich, can best be served by giving the rich bigger meals.

William Blum

This week’s featured post is “The 2016 Stump Speeches: Rick Santorum“.

This week everybody was talking about the trade-deal failure

What happened is a little complicated. The House narrowly voted in favor of giving President Obama the fast-track negotiating authority that the administration says is essential to getting the TransPacific Partnership treaty done. But it rejected the Trade Adjustment Assistance to American workers adversely affected by the treaty, with a large number of Democrats voting against it.

On the surface, it looks like House Democrats got the worst of both votes: the TPP goes forward without help for American workers. But (due to the way Congress works) that throws the issue back to the Senate, which passed the two provisions together. So it’s kind of a poison-pill thing: House Democrats are betting that Senate Democrats will find the fast-track authorization alone too bitter to swallow. If so, the whole deal is dead.

President Obama has made the issue a test of loyalty, but Democrats mostly haven’t bought it. (Republicans want the TPP for the benefits it offers their corporate masters, so they’re totally on board.) Robert Reich explains why:

[I]n recent years the biggest gains from trade have gone to investors and executives, while the burdens have fallen disproportionately on those in the middle and below who have lost good-paying jobs.

So even though everyone gains from trade, the biggest winners are at the top. And as the top keeps moving higher compared to most of the rest of us, the vast majority feels relatively worse off.

and Iraq

For nearly a year, we’ve been trying to fight ISIS while keeping our hands clean: providing air support, training Iraqi troops, “advising”, and so on. There was a brief flurry of optimism after the Iraqi government recaptured Tikrit, but that all evaporated when ISIS took Ramadi in May.

Judging from a great distance, the problem seems to be that Iraqis, particularly Sunnis, see no reason to risk their lives for the Shia-dominated government. The Obama-administration narrative that Iraqi units just need “training” isn’t credible. We’ve been training Iraqi troops since the Bush administration, and the current army shows what we have accomplished.

The various sectarian or ethnic militias are viable fighting forces: the Kurdish Peshmerga, for example. But if the struggle becomes primarily sectarian/ethnic, the vision of a united Iraqi government goes out the window, and ISIS’ claim to be the true defender of the Sunnis is bolstered.

Other than Iranian troops we don’t want for other reasons, non-American foreign intervention — say, Jordanians, Saudis, and Egyptians — also doesn’t appear to be in the cards, for reasons I don’t fully understand. And that creates a dilemma for American politicians. “Defeat ISIS” is a great applause line, but “another Iraq war” isn’t. What if the two mean the same thing?

This week the administration announced a further expansion of our footprint in Iraq, still short of fielding combat units to fight ISIS. But as our troops and our bases get closer to the front lines, I have to wonder: What happens if some Beirut-style surprise attack kills a few hundred Americans? What if dozens of our troops get captured and beheaded on YouTube? How are we not going to deploy combat units then?

I stand by the position I stated in my 2005 post “Cut and Run“: We need to abandon the illusion that our presence in Iraq is fixing something, and that if we just try harder and longer, we’ll fix Iraq well enough to stand on its own. On the contrary, our intervention has been a big part of the chaos-making process that has created ISIS and raised it to its current level. Another American occupation may keep a lid on things temporarily, but in the long term it just makes things worse.

And that raises another question, which Stephen Walt discussed in Foreign Policy: What if the Islamic State wins? In other words, what if the Caliphate remains in control of some piece of territory for the long term? “Live with it,” he says. In current American discourse, that scenario is unthinkable. But we need to start thinking about it, because none of the other options being discussed look realistic.

and that Texas pool party

The best what-happened account I’ve found is at BuzzFeed. The full 7-minute video shot by one of the kids at the party — you’ve seen 20 seconds of it over and over on the news — is here.

At TPM, a former cop analyzed the police response — the majority of officers who were talking to people and trying to keep things calm, and that one maniac who was running around, yelling, barrel-rolling, waving his gun, and generally (in the words of the father of a girl he mishandled) “doing his Paul Blart impersonation”.

What should officers do in similar situations? For starters, they must realize that the public—even a group of non-compliant teenagers—are not an enemy to be vanquished, but civilians to be protected, to the extent possible, from indignity and harm. A Guardian mindset encourages officers to be “procedurally just,” to ensure that their encounters with civilians are empowering, fair, respectful and considerate. Research of police and military encounters strongly suggests that officers are most effective at fostering goodwill and reducing antagonism when they approach each encounter with the goal of building civilian trust.

Atlantic had some background on McKinney itself, from a writer who went to high school there a few years ago. She references a Money article proclaiming McKinney one of the best places to live in America. (In boom years, my town of Nashua, NH has made the same list. In a nutshell, Money is picking out places where it’s relatively easy to find a job that pays you enough to buy a house in a low-crime neighborhood.)

“Underlying McKinney’s homey Southern charm is a thoroughly modern city,” the Money story gushed.

Southern charm is charming, of course, until it isn’t.

As always, Larry Wilmore provides the best comedic commentary on racial incidents. He discussed the original incident here, and the victim-blaming media response here.

And for balance, here are the worst responses. I think the booby prize should go to CNN “legal analyst” Paul Callan:

From the cop’s standpoint, he’s looking at this big kid, who he thinks is about to jump him. He then unholsters his weapon and the kid backs off. The cop then reholsters his weapon and continues to subdue. Of all of the things that he did, that’s probably the one thing that most police officers would say was within training and procedure.

He’s totally ignoring the question of who is raising the temperature of the situation. (Answer: the cop, not the kids.) And suppose one kid doesn’t back off fast enough and the cop shoots him dead. Would that be within training and procedure too?

and the bail system

The way Jon Stewart transformed himself from a mere comedian to America’s Most Trusted Journalist is that he started doing the kind of stuff journalists so seldom do any more, like putting statements of public figures right next to the contradictory statements they made six months ago.

Well, since John Oliver stopped being Jon’s substitute host and started Last Week Tonight on HBO, he has been taking the comedian/journalist thing to the next level. Rather than just providing an irreverent view of events in the current news cycle, Oliver has been actively muckraking: drawing attention to the normal things in American society that are seriously screwed up.

Several of the things Oliver has been shining his light on are related: they’re poverty traps. In other words, the rest of us either don’t notice them or consider them nuisances, but if you’re poor they can doom your attempt to climb out of poverty. For example, minor municipal violations — the kinds of things nearly everybody does at one time or another — can lead to debtors’ prison if you can’t immediately pay the fine. And if you have an unexpected expense — say, your car breaks down and you can’t get to work without it — most of us either have some savings, a close friend or relative with some savings, or a credit card whose interest rate isn’t ruinous. The poor, however, have to deal with payday lenders, completely legal businesses who charge annualized interest rates in the hundreds of percents. So if something prevents a poor person from paying off the loan in a week or two (and not rolling it over into a new loan), he or she is probably never going to get out of debt.

On the May 31 show, Oliver took on the bail system, pointing out some horrifying facts, (corroborated by an NYT article Wednesday):

  • Lots and lots of people (about half a million at any given moment, according the National Institute of Corrections) are in jail simply because they can’t raise the money to bail out.
  • Bail bondsmen will front you the money for a 10% payment, but (unlike bail itself) you don’t get that money back when you show up for trial. So $250,000 in bail can leave an innocent person who follows all the rules with a $25,000 debt. Even without interest, that’s about 20 months of full-time minimum-wage work, assuming you can get somebody else to pay all your living expenses during that time.
  • If you can’t bail out, you might spend weeks or even months in jail. Probably you will lose your job and possibly your home and/or custody of your children as well — even though you haven’t been convicted of anything and may well be innocent.
  • As a result, some people who face bail beyond their means for relatively minor offenses will plead guilty to something they didn’t do. (Rather than spend months in jail waiting to prove your innocence in court, you can plead guilty, get a suspended sentence, and go home.) That creates a criminal record that will follow them for the rest of their lives, but it keeps life from falling apart immediately.

Now add in the way our legal system arrests and charges non-whites in situations where whites could walk away — something Oliver had previously covered in his segment on prisons — and the much larger percentage of the non-white population in poverty, and you have a serious racial issue as well.

and you also might be interested in …

The Iowa Republican Party cancelled its famous presidential straw poll. The poll had long been criticized as a media circus with little-to-no predictive value, but I guess Michele Bachmann’s 2011 victory was the last straw.

TPM’s Josh Marshall says pretty much what I’ve been thinking about Rachel Dolezal and the whole passing-as-black thing.

After two months of “conversations” with voters, Hillary Clinton had the first real rally of her campaign Saturday in New York. The huge number of candidates has left me with a backlog of speeches to analyze, but I’ll get to this one soon.

The fiscal debacle in Kansas is moving towards its inevitable conclusion. In 2012, Governor Brownback went all-in on tax cuts for the wealthy, claiming it would produce economic growth and ultimately increased revenue through the magic of supply-side economics.

Because magic is usually not a major factor in economics, none of that happened. Kansas’ economy has benefited somewhat from the Obama recovery, but not so much as neighboring states that didn’t massively cut taxes. Instead, revenues dropped sharply — as common sense says they would — and Brownback hasn’t been able to cut spending on education and highways fast enough to make up the difference.

So Friday the legislature did what it had to do: raised taxes. But it didn’t restore the pre-Brownback status quo on income or business taxes. Instead, it raised the sales tax.

Imagine if Brownback had been honest from the beginning and said to working-class Kansans: “I want rich people to pay less tax, and I’ll make up the lost revenue by raising the sales tax you pay and cutting corners on your children’s education.” That would have been enormously unpopular and he could never have been elected. But by doing it in steps and promising different outcomes at different times, that’s the policy he has implemented.

When it comes to the news media, one of the most insightful people around is NYU Professor Jay Rosen, who writes the blog PressThink. Unfortunately, Rosen only blogs occasionally, which means I only read his blog occasionally; so it can take a month or so for me to notice something.

Back in May, he wrote “Campaign reporters: you are granted no ‘role in the process.’ It is your powers against theirs.” He discussed a common political problem, but with a new slant. The problem is that political campaigns are increasingly self-contained. The candidate stays insulated from reporters and even from unfiltered questions from voters. So campaigns stay “on message”. In other words, “I’ll tell you what I want you to know, not what you want to know.”

That’s an imperial posture, and it bodes ill for democracy. But Rosen pointed out that the solution isn’t for reporters to claim “their place in the process”, which candidates have imperiously denied them.

Political reporters: You have no guaranteed “role.” That’s a fiction you and your colleagues created to keep the game the same every four years so you don’t have to go to school on how to be useful and powerful in the election system as it evolves. The fiction works if you can get the right people to believe it, but when they clearly don’t care about your “role in the process” how are you going to make ’em care? Got a plan for that?

Rosen does: Reporters should represent the voters.

Candidates will only care about reporters if the voters do, and the voters will only care if they see the reporters working for them. In other words, if The Washington Post is consistently asking candidates the questions I want answers to — like, say, what the minimum wage should be or whether bankers who break the law should go to jail — then a candidate who snubs them snubs me. But if reporters mainly ask inside-baseball questions that only the political class cares about (like why Jeb Bush changed campaign managers), then why should I object if candidates avoid them?

So yes, voters feel cut off from imperial candidates. But which side of the cut-off are reporters on? If the press is also saying “I’ll tell you what I want you to know, not what you want to know”, then they’re just another branch of the Imperium.

The room doubles as the prison cell that holds all the pastors arrested for preaching Christianity or refusing to perform same-sex weddings.

Top-flight state universities may be on the way out, at least in red states. Governor Walker is trying to eliminate the tenure system in the Wisconsin state universities. And while that might work in the lesser schools, it’s hard to see how a major research university like the University of Wisconsin will maintain itself. Josh Marshall comments:

[W]hat Walker is doing is basically like lighting your own house on fire. States can get into financial jams and need to cut spending, either because of budgetary mismanagement or rough economic times. But if you look closely at what Walker is doing there’s no real budgetary imperative behind it. It’s just a desire to destroy a great public institution for the sake of doing it, driven in part by right-wing ideology and in part by the palpable animus Walker himself holds to people who managed to get an education.

And The Nation‘s Zoe Carpenter outlines the ways North Carolina’s state government has been trying to “put what was once one of the great and affordable university systems out of reach for many of the state’s aspiring students”, as well as stifle any academic work on poverty or race.

and let’s close with something awesome

A photo of twin tornadoes dropping out of a giant superstorm cloud formation.

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  • Patrick  On June 15, 2015 at 12:27 pm

    >>>Unfortunately, Rosen only blogs occasionally, which means I only read his blog occasionally; so it can take a month or so for me to notice something.

    Mmm…you’re aware of RSS feeds right?
    Enter this one in your RSS reader and you’ll receive articles from his blog :

  • Dan  On June 15, 2015 at 1:14 pm

    I read through Josh Marshall’s article regarding Rachel Dolezal, and it doesn’t really work. He compares her story to Caitlyn Jenner, says the difference is Rachel lied about her background, and for that reason, Rachel’s claim is not justified in the way Caitlyn’s is. But it is fairly common in the transgender community to lie about your background to pass as a different gender (the case of Brandon Teena being a the most famous). Are we saying that Brandon Teena’s claim to be a man isn’t valid because he lied about being born male?

    He calls her a fraud, but then admits she didn’t try to pass as black for any economic gain (typically the purpose of fraud). If she claims to truly she believes in her heart that she is black, in the same way that Caitlyn claims to truly believe she is a woman, who are any of us to say differently?

    • weeklysift  On June 17, 2015 at 7:17 am

      I don’t think that’s a fair summary of Marshall’s article. He rejects transracialism as an equivalent to transgenderism not because Dolezal lied, but because the equivalence seems to be an invention of outsiders who are trying to discredit both ideas.

      Speaking for myself, I’m not seeing evidence that transracialism is a real thing, in that a person’s soul actually has a racial identity. Now, if lots and lots of people over time come forward with convincing testimony, as transgendered people have, I might change my mind.

      That said, I agree with Marshall that if Dolezal wants to present herself as black and live in black culture as an insider, and if she does it consistently and sincerely, i.e., doesn’t suddenly become white again when it works to her advantage, and if she’s not taking advantage of other blacks by doing so, then I don’t see what there is to get outraged about.

      But to me, inventing black parents for herself seems more like inventing a college degree on a resume. If you’re going to do something like that, I think you need a really compelling reason. And so far I’m not seeing one.

      • Dan  On June 17, 2015 at 12:52 pm

        I see transgenderism and transracialism as fairly equivalent, and not simply an invention by outsiders, but I suppose that’s just a matter of viewpoint.

        I don’t see how there can ever be evidence, be it in regards to gender or racial identity, of what’s in someone’s soul. Testimony isn’t evidence. If it was, then a testimony of religious conviction would be evidence of the validity of that religion, and it isn’t. Many people have claimed that Jesus has spoken through them. While I believe I am morally obligated to accept that they believe this, and not persecute, or allow them to be persecuted for this belief, I am not morally obligated to believe it myself.

        In the same regard, if Caitlyn Jenner wants to call herself a woman and Rachel Dolezal wants to call herself black, I feel morally compelled to respect that wish, but I don’t feel morally obligated to believe it myself; although, I agree with you, that this belief should be applied consistently and sincerely.

        In regards to inventing black parents, if someone has a secret they are ashamed of, keeping that secret hidden at any cost is compelling. I don’t think it’s comparable to lying on a resume because, to the best of my knowledge, she didn’t use this lie for personal gain.

    • weeklysift  On June 17, 2015 at 7:50 am

      Another important difference with the Jenner case is that Dolezal has been putting herself forward as a spokesperson for the black community, without informing the black community about the circumstances of her racial identity.

      If Jenner were suddenly to style herself as an expert on what it’s like to be a woman in America today, I think a lot of other women would object to that. If women would choose to make Jenner their spokesperson, that would be fine with me. But those women would deserve to know the full circumstances.

      • Dan  On June 17, 2015 at 12:57 pm

        I don’t disagree except that by all accounts, Dolezal was a very good spokesperson. If she ever claimed to have suffered racial intolerance at any point before her transition, then that is wrong.

        I can’t help but think, though, that the black community has lost a voice that was working hard on its behalf. After watching a few episodes of the Kardashians, I don’t think anyone would argue that Jenner has done anything to advance the cause of womanhood.

      • Dan  On June 17, 2015 at 1:00 pm

        By the way, I love your site, and tend to agree with about 90% of what you say (and i think on this particular topic, we aren’t that far off in opinion). I just wanted to say that because I only tend to comment when I disagree with something I’ve read.

      • weeklysift  On June 18, 2015 at 7:24 am

        Thanks for the compliment. I only occasionally get trolled, but when it happens it leaves me suspicious of everybody for a while. If I sometimes seem a little too touchy, that’s probably what’s going on.

  • coastcontact  On June 16, 2015 at 12:40 pm

    Just discussing a variety of topics you do not do this blog justice. One that you touched on “free trade agreements” would have been a better us of your time.

    The ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles receive 40% of this country’s imports. Those jammed ports are the face of the overwhelming amounts of imported goods.

    That is a topic that should receive your attention.

    • janinmi  On June 21, 2015 at 3:07 pm

      Um, no. If you want to read a blog post on free trade agreements, I suggest you go right ahead and write one, or read about them somewhere else. A blogger has no obligation to write about anything besides his chosen topics, and no obligation to write about those topics according to what readers want. Please do us the kindness of taking your authoritarian self elsewhere.

  • Kim Cooper  On June 18, 2015 at 1:08 am

    I’ve been a subscriber for some time, and my email address is changing. I couldn’t find any way to change that information, so I just signed up the new eddress. Do they think we never change eddresses?

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