Friday, January 12, 2018

So Done

It was always about race.

If you supported Donald Trump because of his immigration policies, you are a racist.

If you supported Donald Trump despite his immigration policies, you are a racist.

If you're in the West Wing, Congress, or the Trump family and aren't calling the President out today, you are a racist.

If you made excuses about the economy and the forgotten Americans, you may not be a racist, but you're living in a fantasy world. If you don't believe 30 percent of Americans are racist, try asking someone who's not white.

It was always about race. Gender, too, but mostly race.

Just because you don't want to live in that kind of America doesn't mean you don't.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Dream Hoarders

I said I would read it, and I finally did. This slim little book by Brit-turned-US-citizen and Brookings scholar Richard Reeves puts a fine focal lens on our complicity in the class system we all claim to despise. It is a reminder that when we blame the 1 percent for everything, we are just hiding from the fact that it's really the top 20 percent who reap the benefits of our current system.

Reeves opens with a benefit we've taken advantage of in this household: 529 plans. When Obama tried to remove the tax benefits from those plans and use that money to fund a fairer system of tax credits, he found that the very people who put him in office were the ones who hated that idea most. So he pulled the plug before the new, rather progressive idea got off the ground.

Reeves repeatedly reminds the reader that class is fluid. The top 20 percent (roughly households above $115K in income) varies from year to year. But for every person coming up, someone has to go down, and that's the problem. We all want to conserve what we have, often using the excuse of protecting our children. A local example from NYS might be the fact that we cannot come up with a formula for funding our schools, because in order to make things fair, we would have to take something off the top of the districts that offer Mandarin and Prelaw classes to fund districts that can barely afford special ed—and no one, even in the most liberal enclaves of Westchester, is willing to do that!

The upper middle class, or top 20 percent, is rapidly pulling away from the bottom 80 percent. Their children are advantaged from birth, and their status is passed down, thus belying our belief that America is a meritocracy. Rather than focusing on money itself, Reeves names a handful of current trends that serve to keep us separate and unequal. He refers to these trends as "opportunity hoarding." They include exclusionary zoning, legacy college admissions, and unpaid internships, all of which this upper middle class family has taken advantage of over the years. He finds, and I believe him, that the thought of getting rid of any or all of these three advantages makes upper middle class people crazy, no matter what their political leanings might be. Yet all three are designed to ensure that families don't fall out of their comfortable 20 percentdom by allowing other families to move up and displace them.

Because he's a Brookings guy, Reeves doesn't just drop guilt on us without offering policy solutions. His goals are both to reduce opportunity hoarding and also to increase equality. The latter could be achieved, he believes, through the reduction of unintended pregnancies through better contraception (US contraception is antiquated compared to the rest of the developed world's); increasing home visiting to improve parenting (it's a universal event in Britain and unheard of here for the most part, but it has effects as good or better than pre-K education); revising the way we pay teachers so that good teachers are assigned to poorer districts; and funding college fairly (he thinks free college is a terrible idea but champions income-contingent loans, vocational programs, apprenticeships, and cutting tax subsidies to wealthy universities). Interestingly, several of his ideas showed up in HRC's campaign proposals. It would have been fascinating, had she won, to see whether she could battle through the backlash from the people who supported her to get some of these reforms rammed through.

When it comes to exclusionary zoning, Reeves doesn't want to plop high-rises in semirural communities but favors the "missing middle" of townhouses and duplexes that blend into surrounding two-story homes and create mixed neighborhoods and school districts. (We have a couple of examples of duplexes toward this end of Ellis Hollow, but I have no idea if they're affordable. I know that every townhouse that goes up in the county is fought against tooth and nail by someone.) He points out that if Oxford and Cambridge can end legacy admissions, so can Harvard and Yale. And he wants to regulate the oversight of internships so that minimum wage and fair labor laws are enforced and students who are not easily subsidized by their parents may take advantage of those jobs.

There's lots more related to inequitable tax treatment, etc., and there are lots of lovely Brookings graphs showing income and inequality, but the brunt of his argument is as described here. Most of the people complaining loudest about income inequality in America are people who contribute to it. Until we face our privilege and vow to give something up, absolutely nothing will change. Sobering and worth remembering.


Thursday, December 28, 2017

Musings re Citizen Lawmakers

Back in 2010, it was the Tea Partiers—lots of previously unaffiliated folks coming out of the woodwork and asking, as this Times article suggests, "Why not me?"
The new class of lawmakers will contain the highest number of members with no experience of elective office in decades, likely since 1948, when there were 44 such House members elected....
The NRCC gushed, "Their lack of political experience was and is their best asset." The Times mused that "It remains to be seen how much impact the new class of inexperienced politicians will have on legislative matters." And Norm Ornstein suggested, "A lot of the members coming in believe what they've seen on television, that all you have to do is do the right thing and it will happen."

I'd posit that we may now be paying the price for that cluelessness. The Congress we have now is as dysfunctional a bunch as I remember seeing, and surely part of that comes from a complete lack of knowledge about how to legislate. Allen West may have been correct about the original intention of the Founders to have citizen lawmakers who serve and return home, but the Founders never pictured representatives who relied so much on their staffs. Congress starts to look like certain embassies, where the Big Name is simply for show and the little people behind the scenes do all the work.

Now we're facing a similar "Why not me?" from the other side of the aisle, as dozens of would-be representatives leap into the fray. In the 19th, there are six Dems eager to take on Faso: a deacon, a lawyer, a small business owner, a former Cuomo press aide, a teacher, and a cyber security entrepreneur with a degree from West Point. In the 23rd, we have a retired cardiologist, a retired Air Force colonel, a teacher, a small business owner, a cyber security entrepreneur, a lawyer, a minister, and a guy who worked for the Congressional Budget Office. If they sound interchangeable, well, there you go. Theoretically, citizen lawmakers come in all types, but apparently there is some crossover.

I won't broadly state that you shouldn't run for Congress without some legislative or executive experience. Elizabeth Warren did it, and she's done just fine. It may have helped that she'd spent two years chairing a Congressional Oversight Panel and knew a bit about Washington ways, or that she's a Big Brain and a quick study, but it is certainly true that she walked into the Senate without ever having served in a village, town, county, or state government.

However, she may be the exception that proves the rule. When I look at candidates, I want to know their opinions about problems and issues, sure. But I also want some sense of how they might perform at their job. That's not just about public speaking, although that's a piece of it. It's about understanding where the divides are among federal, state, and local law and how the three fit together. It's about constituent support and reading skills and ability to draft legislation without leaving the brunt of it to some staffer.

It's great that a handful of the candidates in 19 and 23 have done some committee or planning board work. It's nice that a few have lobbied for pet issues or are married to policy analysts. And it's absolutely true that we haven't done that well even when we've had longtime legislators in charge.

I liked Matt McHugh, who was never a legislator, although he served as Tompkins County District Attorney and as a State Democratic Committee member before running for Congress. I also liked Maurice Hinchey, who was a member of the State Assembly for many years before his time in Congress. I respected Amo Houghton, who walked into Congress from the business world. And I can't stand Claudia Tenney, who was an assemblywoman before winning the Congressional seat from the 22nd.

So maybe there's no reason for me to get my back up over the number of people running for Congress without having paid their dues and learned the ropes. Maybe it's fine to have citizen lawmakers fresh off the boat from whatever profession they currently occupy. After all, I'm for term limits; I don't want people overstaying their welcome in government.

But I'd feel so much more comfortable if I had a little more to go on than just "What I believe is what you believe." Bad enough that it's amateur hour at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Hypocrisy, Venality, Cynicism

I have nothing much to say about the Tax Act, except that the flipflopping of the one-time no voters is at least as egregious as the amaurotic ignorance of the constant yes voters, one of whom represents me in Congress. This op-ed is a pretty good summary.
How could nearly every Republican representative — and all 52 Republican senators — support the tax bill? The best answer may be the most cynical: because it benefits key leaders, their friends, their heirs and their donors.
Our governor is on record as threatening the four NYS members of Congress who voted for the bill. He is also making news for his plan to have the state divest from the fossil fuel industry. These are fine ways to appeal to progressives, although he could have called for divestment, I suppose, in any year that wasn't leading up to his re-election. However, these moves are overshadowed in my mind by the fact that last Monday he vetoed a bill that would have made a technical adjustment in the tax cap by clarifying that a school district's costs related to BOCES capital should be treated in the same way as the district's capital costs, which are currently excluded from the tax cap calculation. This is something that has twice passed the Assembly and Senate, because it is a no-brainer, but because it might be misconstrued as loosening the tax cap, Cuomo cannot bring himself to support it.

The result is very simple. No group of districts can afford to pay the millions required to update and upgrade BOCES facilities without state assistance. Any BOCES facility (including ours) that needs to expand or make major improvements can forget about it. Students who attend regular public schools are assured of regular fixes, but their sisters and brothers with disabilities, special needs, or a desire to learn a trade will have to make do with failing buildings, be crammed into overcrowded spaces, or end up shipped to faraway BOCES that can accommodate them. But hey, they don't vote.  #kidslivesmatter

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Roll, Tide

The best part of Doug Jones's squeaked-out win is watching Alabama women on Pantsuit Nation post about their pride at being a part of it—and then reading all the Thank yous from all over America. Black women made this happen, assisted by young people.