Thursday, December 30, 2010

Busses to go to inaugural protest in Madison

Prayer will take place inside and outside of Monona Terrace in Madison Monday morning. Inside will be a prayer breakfast in honor of the inauguration of Scott Walker as Wisconsin governor. Outside will be a prayer rally in protest of the actions Walker has already taken to scuttle thousands of anticipated jobs in the state.
The rally and other protest activities during Monday’s inauguration will give residents a chance to show the state and the world their anger and concern over the incoming governor’s cancellation of a federally financed, $810 million, 110 miles-an-hour rail line between Madison and Milwaukee.

The rally will take place at 9 a.m. Monday. No passenger train connects Wisconsin’s two biggest cities, so Milwaukeeans who want to participate can board busses at 6:30 a.m. in a parking lot at 27th and Hopkins Sts. MICAH (Milwaukee Innercity Congregations Allied for Hope) has details.  (For background, see my earlier post, "Rail backers to 'crash' Wis. governor's inaugural.")

* * *

Business community paralyzed

Would Milwaukee’s business community have stood silently by had a Democratic governor-elect chased a manufacturing company out of town and rejected hundreds of millions in free economic development money, killing a project that (1) had already hired dozens of construction workers and would eventually have hired hundreds more, (2) would have created dozens of permanent jobs directly and hundreds indirectly and (3) would have linked the state’s two top economic engines by fast passenger rail?  I think not.

The business community’s silence in Walker’s case, I submit, betrays its bias in favor of Republicans. That bias made it too paralyzed to head off a Republican-engineered economic fiasco.

In announcing it would move its manufacturing operation out of Milwaukee in light of the state’s anti-rail climate, train-maker Talgo expressed disappointment about that silence, which, the firm said, stood in contrast with the encouragement it got from business leaders to come to Milwaukee in the first place.

The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce blames its non-action on a poll that found its members evenly split on the merits of high-speed rail between Milwaukee and Madison.

* * *

Other states cheer Walker

“California's high-speed rail system is slowly coming together, thanks to a commitment to 21st-century progress and political games over federal funding by the Republican governors of Ohio and Wisconsin.” Fresno Bee.

“Thanks a billion, cheeseheads.” Los Angeles Times.

“California is not too proud to take leftovers.” The Orange County Register

“U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla), welcomed Thursday the news that Florida is getting ‘an early Christmas present.’” News Chief  (Winter Haven, Fla.).

* * *
Let them eat donated goods

Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle donated proceeds from his inauguration – $233,000 in 2003, $323,000 in 2007 – to the state's Boys & Girls Clubs. Walker plans to split the proceeds between the state Republican Party and his own campaign chest. He is, however, asking inaugural guests to bring canned goods for the Hunger Task Force. Not a bad idea. Given Walker’s job-killing propensities, hunger may well rise during his governorship.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Rail backers to "crash" Wis. governor's inaugural

Seething over the jobs lost because of the cancellation of high-speed rail in Wisconsin, a church full of people in Milwaukee cheered calls Thursday night to “crash” Gov.-Elect Scott Walker’s inauguration on Jan. 3.

“What Scott Walker has done is despicable, is shameful,” Father Tom Mueller, an Eastern Orthodox priest, told the more than 300 people on hand. “He slams the city. He spits on the city. … He doesn’t care what we say. We have to take our message where he is.”
Father Tom Mueller

Added Marilyn Miller of the Reformation Lutheran Church: “We need to crash the party on Jan. 3.” Organizers did not specify what they meant by “crash.”

The emotional meeting was a reminder that the high speed rail issue is not just a political game. It affects real people. It could mean the difference between having a livelihood and not having one.

A long string of residents went to the microphone at New Hope Baptist Church on Milwaukee's north side and expressed dismay and anger that Walker turned down an opportunity to create thousands of jobs, which they described as badly needed. Several said they themselves were unemployed. Others spoke of the travails of living in a community with high unemployment.
Marilyn Miller

A church coalition called MICAH joined forces with labor unions and other groups to sponsor Thursday night’s event and the upcoming demonstration in Madison.

Walker had vowed to reject $810 million in federal money, mostly for building a high-speed rail system between Milwaukee and Madison.  As a consequence, the federal government took most of the money away and handed it out to rail projects in other states. Construction had begun on the project, but present Gov. Jim Doyle halted it in light of Walker’s statements.

Citing Walker’s anti-rail policies, Talgo, which makes trains, plans to move its manufacturing operations out of Milwaukee in 2012, but would leave a maintenance crew behind.

Walker’s rationale has been that, although the feds would fully cover construction, he didn’t want the the state to be saddled with up to $7.5 million a year in operating costs. The rationale makes little sense because the project itself should have generated more than enough state taxes to cover those costs.

“When you throw away $810 million, that’s a colossal mistake,” one audience member, a pastor, told the crowd.

“Who in his right mind gives away all that money?” asked a young woman.

Said another speaker,: “This man is on drugs. … That’s the only thing I can figure out. His brains are fried.”

Eddie Tipton, a bus driver said of Walker, “He doesn’t care about you or me.”

Rubin (Ben) Ciriacks carried a sign with the numbers “250,000,” the amount of jobs Walker has pledged to create in Wisconsin, and “-55,” the number of workers idled by the  halt in high speed rail construction that was already under way. During Walker’s tenure, he said, keep asking, “Where are the jobs?”

The Rev. Leonard Fuller, who works with ex-cons, noted the tough time they had finding jobs, the lack of which fuels crime.

One woman advocated “following Scott Walker everywhere he goes.”

Attendees signed up to go to the protest in Madison on Jan. 3 and to get others to go.

The sponsors of the event: Milwaukee Innercity Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH), the Services Employees International Union, the Amalgamated Transit Union, the Milwaukee Area Labor Council, the League of Young Voters and Wisconsin Citizen Action.

Photos by Gregory Stanford

Thursday, December 9, 2010

NAACP alienates civil rights leaders in Milwaukee

The behavior of the NAACP’s national office in a contentious branch election has left a sour taste in the mouths of much of Milwaukee’s civil rights leadership, which was rooting for the reform slate, the side that eventually won.

Victory was sweet, but not enough to negate the sourness – raising the question of how well will the NAACP’s Baltimore headquarters and the new Milwaukee board relate.

James Hall
Branch President-Elect James Hall, a civil rights attorney, says he’s looking “forward to a positive, constructive” relationship with the national office.

But others involved in the movement to reform the branch cite a continuing sore point: The national office went berserk with suspensions, ousting from the organization eight people in the reform camp. Members of that camp find it hard to forgive and forget while their comrades in struggle remain suspended. Some suspensions are for three years; others are indefinite.

The suspensions are in fact astounding. Kicked out were revered stalwarts of Milwaukee’s black community. The most illustrious is perhaps Lauri Wynn, who in 1973 became the first African American to head the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s umbrella teachers union. Before that, she was on the front lines of the struggle to desegregate Milwaukee’s schools. And in 1983 she became an aide to Wisconsin Gov. Tony Earl.

A picket line protested the suspension of Milwaukee NAACP
before voting took place across the street.
Among the other prominent evictees are Wallace White, chair of the Milwaukee African American Chamber of Commerce, vice chair of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage Commission and CEO of a business consulting firm, and Elmer Anderson, former second-in-command at the Milwaukee Urban League and a former administrator at the Milwaukee Area Technical College.

Their crime? Publicly speaking out against the administration of the local branch.

“Outrageous” and “incredible” was how former Milwaukee Alderman Fred Gordon, a lawyer, described the behavior of the national office, adding, “I think it sucks.”

Picketers end their demonstration with a prayer.
Interviewed on Nov. 20 on his way inside Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church to vote, Gordon theorized that the national office behaved the way it did because “the current NAACP leadership and the branch have been very close.” He noted that a few years back the branch had hosted the national conference, which, he said, had made money for the NAACP.

Frank Atwater, who formerly headed agencies serving the black community, found particularly incredible the suspension of Wynn. “She’s an icon of the community,” he said.

The national office has not yet responded to my request to give its side of the story.

Widespread discontent about the performance of the branch led to the movement to reform it. A pivotal date in the drama was Sept. 18, when, according to an e-mail message from Hall to his supporters, a branch membership meeting “was improperly adjourned and the lights were turned out and police summoned to disburse approximately 150 members assembled to elect a nominating committee and conduct other business.”

About 50 people re-assembled across the street in a restaurant parking lot and put together a nominating committee. It was members of that committee who got suspensions, which made them ineligible to vote. Representatives of the national office came in and conducted the election instead.

Gloria Gilmer – an educator, civic leader and mathematician – described that meeting as the turning point in that it showed many in attendance how bad the branch leadership was.

Jerry Ann Hamilton, branch president for 10 years, had chosen not to run again and picked her second-in-command, activist and businessman Wendell Harris, to succeed her.

The reform camp had accused the incumbent leadership of mismanagement of funds, nepotism, and failure to deal effectively with a complex of problems crushing the black community, such as high poverty and unemployment rates. That camp has noted that the branch has gone without a financial audit for 10 years.

Hundreds turned out for the election. Many were turned away because, even though they vowed they had paid memberships, NAACP officials could not find their names in their records. Some went home to get proof of membership and returned. Among them was Atwater, who came back with a cancelled check for his membership dues and was allowed to vote. The news media was not allowed inside the church.

Almost everyone appeared to be under the impression that they could run in, vote and leave. But such was not the case. Nominations took place first and the voting procedures were explained. The wait was a couple of hours and more for some voters. A woman who left without casting a ballot said she couldn’t wait any longer. She had a wedding to attend.

"I would say a good 100 people left without voting because they had other plans,” commented Jenelle Elder-Green, an NAACP member who once handled public relations for the Milwaukee Public Schools. “It really is unfair. People were denied the right to vote. If that had happened in any other election, the NAACP would be filing a lawsuit”

Notable about this whole episode is the passion the reformers show for the NAACP.  They could have just given up on the organization and attempted to form an alternate group. But they believe in the NAACP, or at least the ideals of the NAACP. Mary Glass, a suspended member, talks about restoring the NAACP brand, making the organization true to its purpose – a notion echoed by other reformers.

Gilmer said, “I think what happened here can be a resurgence of the NAACP.” She stressed she was referring to the national organization, not just the Milwaukee branch. Reformers have emerged at other troubled branches, she said, and the national office, to judge by its attempts to tamp down reform in Milwaukee, has also lost its way.

Photos by Gregory Stanford

Monday, November 15, 2010

Wisconin Gov.-Elect Walker has a deep-seated hatred for rail

Photo credit: dreamstime_11512691
Hatred of rail most logically explains Wisconsin Gov.-Elect Scott Walker’s torpedoing the planned high-speed train between Milwaukee and Madison. His stated motive – to save Wisconsin taxpayers $7.5 million a year in operating costs – doesn’t compute. After all, the project should easily generate that money and more for the state coffers.

Before I had a chance to post this piece, an alternate explanation emerged: the gobs of money the road builders lavished on the Walker campaign. But the Milwaukee County executive’s phobia about rail goes way back, stunting public transit in Milwaukee for years. Now he has public transportation in a whole state to retard.

Consider these facts:

  • The Republican politician has pledged to attract 10,000 companies to Wisconsin in four years. Yet, almost the first thing he does as governor-elect is to practically shoo a company away, Milwaukee-based high-speed train maker Talgo, which Mayor Tom Barrett and outgoing Gov. Jim Doyle had convinced to open shop in the industrial city. The company has said that, because of Walker’s anti-rail policies, it may move to Illinois, into the open arms of Gov. Pat Quinn.
  • Walker has pledged to bring 250,000 jobs to the state in those four years. Yet, already he has done the opposite, idling dozens of workers who have started to construct the high speed rail line. In killing the project, he would put the kibosh on thousands of construction jobs altogether and lead to the layoffs of scores of engineers and others already hired for the project. Dozens of new jobs – to run the railroad and its stations – won’t be created. He would likely chase away the 125 jobs planned for Talgo. Hundreds of spinoff jobs – at the ice cream parlor that opens near a train station or at the electronics store that must hire due to increased business generated by train-related paychecks – won’t come to be.
  • Walker complains about the state’s fiscal crisis. Yet, he’s thumbing his nose at $810 million in free money – that is, money the state doesn’t have to raise. Sure, he’s asking the feds to redirect this stimulus money to Wisconsin roads, or, in the latest ploy, to existing rail. But that outcome is, as Doyle put it, “pure fiction.” Meanwhile, governors elsewhere, particularly in Illinois and New York, are salivating over these funds. What’s more, if Wisconsin drops the project, the law holds it would have to return millions already spent on it.
  • The thousands of jobs to be generated by the project – the Madison-based Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group puts the number of permanent jobs at 13,000 – should result in state tax payments that would easily cover the $7.5 million in yearly operating costs. But Wisconsin may only have to pay $750,000 – should federal aid cover 90% of the costs, as it already does with the Milwaukee-to-Chicago Hiawatha line.

In short, in killing the Madison-to-Milwaukee rail line, Walker is pursuing a course that would likely cost Wisconsin many times more money than the $7.5 million a year it might save. So the question becomes: Why is he pursuing this insane course? True, the money he’s getting from the road builders is likely a factor, even though the $810 million can’t be used for roads. But the most logical explanation, to borrow from Glenn Beck, is that Walker has a deep-seated hatred for rail.

Milwaukeeans are familiar with this hatred. One of his chief “accomplishments” as Milwaukee County executive was to keep light rail away – for reasons that likewise failed to withstand scrutiny. He called himself protecting the county bus system, from which light rail would drain resources. He depicted himself as champion of the poor (don’t laugh!), who ride the bus, whereas light rail draws the upwardly mobile, quiche-eating crowd.

Some protector he turned out to be. He has the bus system in a death spiral of rising fares, reduced service and falling ridership.

While Walker was saying “no” to light rail, Minneapolis was saying “yes.” And that enlightened city found that light rail 1) drew more riders than expected, 2) in contrast to busses, pulled people out of their cars and onto public transit, 3) increased bus ridership since passengers could use their light rail transfers for the bus and vice versa, 4) boosted business around light rail stops and 5) increased job opportunities for poor people.

Minneapolis could look amused at County Executive Walker’s irrational hatred of rail. But the Minnesota city must be alarmed at Gov. Walker’s hatred. The next leg of high speed rail to be constructed was supposed to connect Minneapolis to Madison and thus to Milwaukee and Chicago. But Walker’s quashing those plans.

The better workers, customers and business people can move around, the more vibrant the economy will be. Walker retarded that movement in Milwaukee County. Now, gads, he’s trying to do for the state what he did for the county.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Once again economy trumps everything

No, it wasn’t Obamacare. No, it wasn’t the deficit. No, it wasn’t the excessive partisanship in Congress. No, it wasn’t the bailout. No, it wasn’t even high taxes.

It remained the economy, Stupid.
Voters were lashing out in pain at the polls Tuesday, to the benefit of the out party, the Republicans.

The ejected Democrats fell victim to the Great Recession, which rolls on endlessly. They didn’t create the downturn. In so far as elected officials are to blame, Republicans deserve more of the rap because of their unswerving support for the fiscally reckless, oversight-eschewing policies of George Bush.

But the economy was too slow to recover after the Democrats took power, so they paid the price. Even exceptional lawmakers, like Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, went down.
U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold

Maybe President Obama should have heeded the advice of economist-columnist Paul Krugman and did a bigger, more aggressive stimulus package. Sure, the Tea Party types would have had even bigger conniption fits than they did. But the result could well have been a faster recovery and thus a happier electorate and continued Democratic control of the House. The stickler, of course, would have been getting a bigger package passed.

Republicans risk trouble if they act on the false belief it was their message that won the day. They claim the people don’t want what Republicans derisively call Obamacare. But try repealing it, and watch the howls of protest. Health care reform helps people much more than it hurts anybody.

Republicans may delude themselves into believing that the people want to renew Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy. But those cuts failed to keep us out of the Great Recession and are likely to continue to flop at producing jobs, which are what the people really want.

Republicans may think they were elected to balance the budget by cutting spending. But such action could slow the economy and prolong the recovery and thus alienate the electorate. (See earlier post, "The deficit in Republican thinking.")

There is a silver lining for Democrats. According to the exit polls reported on TV, they overwhelmingly won the youth vote. Trouble is, young people didn’t vote in as big a number as they did two years ago – a failure that allowed the Republicans to romp. Still, the G.O.P. remains a dying party, with only enough strength now to score victories when young people stay home.

But those young people will mature and thus vote more often. At the same time the ranks of the elderly G.O.P. will shrink due to deaths. What’s more, two groups that have sought refuge in the Democratic Party – African Americans and Latinos – are expanding.

Yes, Tuesday was bad for Democrats. But they mustn’t take the loss personally. The electorate was in pain and had to lash out at somebody. What’s more, better days lie ahead for the Dems and, if they stay true to their principles, the country.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

In race for governor, Milwaukee county exec blames mayor, exempts self from blame for community's ills

Never mind that, when all of America falls into an economic sinkhole, the source of the problem likely lies outside your city hall or your statehouse. Political ads across the nation are bludgeoning local and state office holders for the mess.

One of the more brazen examples is taking place in the governor’s race in Wisconsin. An ad sponsored by Republican candidate Scott Walker piles Milwaukee’s ills on the shoulders of his Democratic foe, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett

“Barrett’s city has one of the worst job creation records of any big city in the U.S.,” the announcer charges. The voice notes that the city’s August unemployment rate was 11.5% and called Milwaukee the fourth poorest city in the nation. (Actually, dozens of smaller cities are poorer than Beer Town, which is in a twelve-way tie for the-third worst poverty rate among big cities. See analysis by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Employment and Training Institute.)

From Scott Walker's campaign site
What makes the ad so nervy is that Walker is acting as if he’s an innocent bystander, with no responsibility for Milwaukee’s ills. He’s Milwaukee County’s top official, for crying out loud. He’s held the post of county executive for eight years. So if the city’s record means, as the ad puts it, “we can’t trust Tom Barrett to turn Wisconsin’s economy around,” ditto for Walker. The last I checked, the city was a big part of the county.

Under Walker, the county’s unemployment rate soared from 4.6% in April of 2009 to 10.5% in March of 2010 – a period when the county lost a whopping 34,000 jobs.

The county exec has claimed exemption from responsibility on jobs. Economic development is not part of his portfolio, he says – a telling attitude. In light of the crying need, he should have made encouraging job creation a top priority. The problem was he remained a bystander – a guilty bystander.

Does Walker think he deserves a pass on the county’s poverty rate, too? Of every six people in the county, one is poor – the tenth worst rate among the 50 biggest counties in the nation. Walker blew chances to tackle poverty. The state stripped from Walker’s portfolio programs to serve the poor on the grounds they were badly run. The Private Industry Council, which does job training, was turned over to the city, and the state itself took over food aid, child care and medical assistance programs "Milwaukee County has demonstrated a sustained inability to successfully provide services to its (poor) customers," the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel quoted a state official as saying in a letter to Walker.

As a legislator Walker got behind a measure that was supposed to take a big bite out of poverty: Wisconsin Works, which ended cash grants to most poor families with children and tied aid to jobs. The theory was that, rather than easing poverty, the grants themselves were causing it by encouraging dependency. So by taking away the grants, you do poor people a favor, ending their dependency and nudging them into the middle-class. Well, the Walker ad itself testifies to the failure of that policy. Wisconsin Works didn’t do what Walker and other backers said it would do. Poverty has only intensified in the city (and in the county).

The county exec touts his penny-pinching budget submissions as his way of attracting businesses. Never mind that the strategy didn’t work. For one, few took his budgets seriously, They were seen as political stunts, his way of claiming he worked to keep taxes low, while leaving to the County Board the heavy lifting of coming up with a realistic budget. For another, the strategy didn’t stop thousands of jobs from vanishing.

Among public officials you can legitimately blame for the nation’s loss of millions of jobs is former President George Bush, who presided over an economic crash after cutting taxes for the wealthy and loosening regulations on businesses – principles that, eerily, Scott Walker holds dear.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The deficit in Republican thinking

Observations from watching too much politics on TV:

In a close race for Congress in a sprawling district that includes south suburban Chicago, young, handsome challenger Adam Kinzinger is but the latest to mouth a Republican talking point to explain why he backs renewing President Bush’s expiring tax cuts for the wealthy: The worst thing you can do is to raise taxes in the middle of a recession.

That boilerplate answer harkens back to the then radical philosophy of Depression-era economist John Maynard Keynes, a favorite of liberals. But Keynes did think there was one worse thing you could do: cut spending. Funny, Republicans skip over that detail. GOP rhetoric goes in the opposite direction: Reign in out-of-control spending now.

Keynes, by the way, believed government should reverse course in good economic times, by hiking taxes and paring expenditures. But Republicans subscribe to supply-side economic theory, which holds that you always cut taxes on the wealthy, whether the times are good or bad. One consequence is the ballooning of federal budget deficits during the last three Republican presidencies.

* * *

It’s the top of the 9th, and the score is 10-2 in the visitors’ favor. Even though your hometown team’s starting pitcher George Bush played disastrously, he was inexplicably kept in the game. Finally, with the bases loaded and nobody out, the manager yanks him and brings in the long, lean Barack Obama The new pitcher forces the first batter to pop up; no base runner advances. The second player strikes out. The third batter, however, hits a homer, a grand slam, pushing the score to 14-2,which ends up as the final score.

Now, ridiculously, some fans are grousing that Obama lost the game. Of course, under the sensible rules of baseball, the loss falls squarely on Bush.

Politics lacks such clear-cut rules, however. Thus, Dana Loesch – a conservative, St. Louis-based blogger and talker – says on Real Time with Bill Maher that Obama tripled the federal budget deficit in 2009 from the year before.

The deficit was a record $1.4 trillion in 2009, up from $459 billion in 2008. But if that record was Obama's doing, how come the accountants saw it coming well before he took office. Eventually, on Jan. 7, 2009 – two weeks before the Inauguration – the Congressional Budget Office projected a deficit of over a trillion dollars for the year. The office put a price tag on George W. Bush’s policies, not Obama’s campaign promises, to come up with the figure. The big budget busters: the tax cuts and two wars, along with the recession. Keep in mind, too, that 2009 actually refers to the fiscal year that started on Oct. 1, 2008, more than three months before Bush left office. (See analysis by Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.)

* * *
Does anyone buy the Republican talking point that the congressional stalemate over tax cuts is creating uncertainty among businesses and is thus retarding the recovery? OK, I can see the uncertainty part. The fragile state of the economy itself, though, is surely fueling more uncertainty. But slowing the recovery? That’s a joke, right? The steepness of the hole the nation fell into is what's making the climb out a slog.

Obama is taking steps to reduce Bush’s impact on future budgets and thereby reduce future deficits. One such step is to let Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy expire. But Republicans (and some Democrats) won’t cooperate. Congress recessed without taking up the issue - lack of action that won't send the economy into a tizzy.

Further reading:

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Feingold's challenger backs theories that blew up in Bush’s face

Ron Johnson, the Republican who may oust Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, expresses the belief that sunspots, not car tailpipes or factory smokestacks, are melting the polar ice caps. Not a bad hunch, actually.

The rising sun plays with the Di Suvero sculpture
The Calling
in Milwaukee
The sun, after all, is Earth’s furnace. When the planet warms, a natural question is: Did somebody turn the furnace up? Sunspots indicate that somebody or some process did. Thus, many scientists have looked into the issue of whether a hotter sun means a hotter planet.
The overwhelming conclusion: Not really. Here’s the way Scientific American put it last year: “Many climate scientists agree that sunspots and solar wind could be playing a role in climate change, but the vast majority view it as very minimal and attribute Earth’s warming primarily to emissions from industrial activity — and they have thousands of peer-reviewed studies available to back up that claim.”

Yet, in his debates with Feingold, Johnson persists in his convenient belief that sunspots are the global warming culprit, rather than accept the inconvenient truth that, by emitting gasses that trap the sun’s heat, human activity is the actual villain. His persistence suggests a mind hostile to the scientific process – a suggestion reinforced by some of his other political notions.

Ron Johnson
The scientific mind does formulate theories to explain what’s happening, as Johnson did. But the next step is to submit the theories to rigorous scrutiny and then – and here’s the stumbling block for Johnson – to go where the facts lead.

Take this tax-and-spend thing. Johnson expresses the belief that extending President Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy would spur the economy. Again, not a bad hunch. The more of their dough billionaires keep, the more they can spend to create jobs. Common sense, right? Trouble is, this theory has actually been tested in practice, and with miserable results.
Despite the tax cuts, private-sector job growth was painfully slow during the Bush years and the economy ultimately crashed. And there was this other little thing: The budget surpluses Bush inherited from President Clinton turned into deficits. These pesky facts don’t deter Johnson, though. Note that the Oshkosh businessman is toeing the Republican Party line on taxes – an indication that the preference for theory over contrary facts is party-wide.

Johnson voices the bedrock Republican notion that government regulation is bad. Again, the theory that governmental red tape jams economic gears makes some sense on its face. A business has to take time out from producing goods or services to fill out governmental paperwork and to clear bureaucratic hurdles. But over the last several decades, government has in fact loosened regulations. Two recent calamities – America’s financial meltdown and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico – demonstrate spectacularly what happens when government rules or their enforcement are too lax. Johnson ignores these developments, which fail to back up his theory about the intrinsic evil of regulation.

Johnson set the tone at the start of his senatorial campaign by telling a whopper that has made it into the realm of The Big Lie, a falsehood repeated so many times that it eventually sounds true. The millionaire ran an ad in which he said government doesn’t create jobs – a statement that makes no sense whatever on its face, but that sounds legit nonetheless due to constant repetition on the political right. Were government merely to create a post of paper shuffler, it’s creating a job – real in the sense that the person who holds it gets real money, which would support a family, who would spend the money on goods and services and thereby help keep the economy humming.

Typical government workers do more than shuffle papers, of course. The services they perform boost the economy, providing the law and order that commerce needs to thrive, moving the mail and the parcels on which business depends, schooling the next generation of business leaders and workers, keeping contagious diseases at bay, maintaining licensing systems to help keep automobile traffic orderly, helping shops get back on their feet after natural disasters.

Also, government creates jobs though contracting out services and through economic development initiatives, which, as it turns out, have benefitted Johnson’s plastics firm.

The Big Lie supports the theory that government is of little use – a theory to which the Bush administration subscribed to its detriment. Remember Katrina, the beginning of the end for the Bush White House? That administration’s disdain for government – anybody can run an emergency management agency, you don’t need an expert – helps explain its inept response to the disaster.

Wisconsin seems on the verge of electing a senator who gives pet theories more weight than facts – specifically, the facts that made lies of the theories during the Bush years.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The storm that rusted the Steel Belt

Detroit – The storm that upended New Orleans came fast and furious. In contrast, notes Political Science Professor Lyke Thompson, "Detroit has endured a slow-moving disaster – a disaster that stretches across decades of deindustrialization."

Lyke Thompson
If you had shot photos daily of Detroit over the last half century or so and then strung them into a fast-playing movie, it would indeed look as if an invisible force was tearing the city apart, destroying thousands of homes, clearing away huge chunks of neighborhoods, idling scores of factories, throwing legions out of work and prompting all manner of heartbreak, much as Katrina did.

So where is Detroit’s federal aid? asks Thompson, director of the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University. He points out that New Orleans got many millions from the feds to recover.

That apt question does apply to Detroit especially, but not exclusively. The vortex of forces that has battered the Motor City has played out in other industrial centers across America. The resulting devastation cries out for federal relief – in the form of a vigorous national urban policy backed up with dollars.

Remember when the South was dirt-poor? Well, wipe that outdated image from your head. The industrial North, once the Promised Land to which Southern refugees fled, is now the one with hat in hand.

Just take a look at the 2009 poverty figures the US Census Bureau recently released. All five big cities with the highest share of poor people – Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Milwaukee, St. Louis, in that order – once played starring roles in the Northern Steel Belt, spewing out outboard motors, rubber tires, handyman tools, door locks, tractors, airplane parts, construction beams, lawn mowers, gears, locks, motorcycles, furnaces, glass windows, water meters, railroad tracks, steam engines, mining gear, nuts and bolts, pots and pans, kitchen sinks, and, Detroit’s specialty, automobiles. The work was often hard, but the pay was good, permitting many a strapping lad to muscle his way out of poverty and into the middle class.

That portal to the good life has all but vanished. The Steel Belt has morphed into the Rust Belt. The ranks of the poor have swelled.

Thompson notes that state government, itself reeling from the downturn in the automobile industry, has steadily cut back on the revenue it shares with Detroit. “There should be much more serious attention from the national government," he says.

Robin Boyle, chair of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Wayne State, says that revenue sharing money from state and federal governments in America pales by comparison with what European cities get. As reported in a previous post, he notes that Europe further protects its cities by outlawing sprawl, which drains urban centers of resources and people.

Do Europeans have a better attitude toward cities?

No, says Boyle, who grew up in Scotland. They have the same love-hate attitude that you find in America.

Here, in my opinion, hate has the upper hand. In 1975, when Gerald Ford was president and New York City was staring into the abyss of bankruptcy and seeking federal help, the New York Daily News blared on the front page: “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD," which seemed to have summed up how the White House felt.

Boyle points to Ronald Reagan, who said in effect: Cities, you’re on your own. Reagan cut back on urban programs right and left.

Professor Thompson points to statistics showing that in some ways the slow-motion storm that chewed up Detroit left this city worse off than is New Orleans today. As the chart notes below, Detroit has higher poverty, unemployment and even housing-vacancy rates than does New Orleans.

The storm that tore Detroit apart wreaked havoc throughout the industrial North. Hence, even Milwaukee outstrips the Big Easy in poverty.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey 2009
Of course, New Orleans deserves every penny of federal aid it gets. But it shouldn’t have to take a sudden cataclysm to loosen the federal purse strings. The federal government must start treating America’s besieged cities as the national treasures they are.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The suburbs are killing Detroit - and themselves

Detroit – Sporting waves in his close-cropped hair, my cousin Tommy drove fast cars, wore sharp clothes, spoke the latest jive and walked the latest strut. That’s the Detroit way, he explained when as an older teen in the early 1960s he would visit my family in southeast Washington, D.C.
He regarded my home town as kind of square – which got no argument from my friends and me. We knew that, with the likes of the Cadillac and the Mustang, the Supremes and the Miracles, Detroit defined hip.

These days, of course, Detroit doesn’t strut; it hobbles, and on makeshift crutches. Its fall from riches to rags was doubtless the most spectacular of any American city. The Motor City’s plight sends chills down the spine of big-city mayors elsewhere. They know its fate is where their trend lines may head.

Still, under what appears to be the sagacious leadership of Mayor Dave Bing, the ex-Piston basketball star, this battered, emaciated city is trying valiantly to heal itself. As the first stage in the effort to come up with a plan, Bing initiated a series of listening sessions, where residents poured their hearts out about the harshness of life in a city recently rated by and bizjournals as the most stressful in America.

This ambitious effort at renewal is badly handicapped, however. While the shenanigans of previous Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick certainly didn’t help, the sources of the city’s woes lie mostly outside its borders, where current Mayor Bing has little control. A chief culprit is the proliferation of municipalities that make up the Detroit area.

Detroit is half the city it once was. The number of residents shrank from 1.85 million in 1950 to 911,000 today, knocking Detroit from fifth to 11th in the ranking of American cities. The big, fashionable Victorian house that the young Tommy called home is now an empty, weedy lot; Detroit is saddled with an estimated 60,000 such lots. What’s more, some 93,000 housing units – a fourth of the city’s housing stock – sit vacant.

Detroit residents voice their concerns at community meeting in rotunda
of Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing addresses community meeting
Five community forums convened by Bing drew thousands. The last took place last week at the elegant Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Bing got several ears-full: Direct opportunities at ex-felons. Lobby Washington in behalf of Detroiters, not just General Motors. Make the payment for trash collection fairer. Ask the governor to declare a state of emergency in response to a foreclosure crisis in Detroit. Be mindful that unused land may have environmental hazards that must be cleaned up. Set up a regional transit authority. Make contractors pick up trash before mowing empty lots. Restore the requirement that city employees live in the city. Encourage more retail downtown to draw people to live there. Don’t just rehabilitate; put new houses on empty lots.

The listening isn’t over. The next step in the planning process will entail 40 smaller neighborhood meetings.

Bing is wise to adopt this bottom-up approach to planning. But the problems are tough to get a handle on.

Lyke Thomspon, director of the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University, noted in an interview that “130-plus municipalities of one kind or another” lie in the three-county Detroit area (Wayne, Oakland and Macomb Counties). He adds that most of the people who left the city moved to the suburbs, rather than out of state.

In short, unfettered suburban sprawl has played a key role in hollowing out Detroit. One problem with sprawl is the suburban habit of walling out poor people through snob zoning and other means, thereby putting the burden of poverty on the city, which, due to the flight of wealth to these very suburbs, have a declining ability to deal with the problem.

Professor Robin Boyle
Robin Boyle, chair of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Wayne State and native of Scotland, notes that Europe’s industrial cities, such as Liverpool and Essex in England, are going through the pangs of job losses just as is America’s Rust Belt. But the European cities aren’t suffering as much due to strict land-use regulations that prevent sprawl.

Detroit used to blunt some of the damaging impact of sprawl by reserving city jobs for city residents. The city thus used one of its own precious resources - jobs - to help fight unemployment within its borders and to shore up the city’s economy and tax base. In 1999, however, the Michigan Legislature outlawed residency requirements for public employees and thus took away this survival tool.

In the long run, though, the hollowing out of Detroit, the metro area’s flagship, hurts the suburbs, too. A shabby main city tends to keep corporations away from the entire area, not just the city. What’s more, a vibrant hub acts as a magnet for the young creative class, which urban planners regard as vital to an area’s future prosperity.

Tellingly, this city is not alone in losing people. Since 2004, while the nation has been growing, the entire Detroit metro area has annually seen its population drop, according to the Census Bureau.

The suburbs ignore Detroit’s fate at their own peril.

Photos are by Gregory Stanford

Monday, August 30, 2010

Is Glenn Beck reborn in the image of King?

The rally Glenn Beck staged the other day on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial raises the question of whether he has been reborn in the spirit of the great man he repeatedly invoked: Martin Luther King Jr.

Up to now, there was no confusing Beck with King. Truth be told, Beck was more in the mold of a nemesis of the civil rights struggle, George Corley Wallace, the Alabama governor who stood at a university doorway to block its first two black students from registering. Wallace ran for president as a populist, broadcasting the slogan “Stand Up for America” and railing against “pointy-headed intellectuals” and other assorted liberals. He won strong support in pockets of white America fearful of the racial, social and cultural upheaval under way in the land (think Archie Bunker) – the very same sectors that today revere Beck as a leader of their effort to take their country back.

At Saturday’s rally, however, Beck cooled his shrill, divisive rhetoric, saying: “There’s a lot we can disagree on, but our values and our principles can unite us. We must discover them again.”

What’s more, the next day the talk show host took back the slur he made against President Obama last year – remarks that had epitomized Beck’s tendency to polarize the nation. He had accused Obama of harboring a deep-seated hatred of white people and of being a racist – without resting the accusation on any facts. In an interview on Fox News Sunday, however, Beck finally admitted he had erred and that he regretted the remarks, adding: "I have a big fat mouth sometimes and I say things"

So does Beck’s revival-like rally signal he has atoned for his sins, that he has seen the light, that he has become a new man, in the spirit of King?

I happened to have basked in that spirit at the original March on Washington in 1963. I was a high school kid, D.C. was my home town, and King and his fellow freedom fighters were my heroes. I felt awed and honored to walk in their midst.

Despite the often brutal resistance the civil rights warriors faced in the South, peace and love pervaded the original march. The participants heeded King, who said in his “I Have a Dream” speech: “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.”

So has Beck now ascended to that plane? Unfortunately, the signs so far are that Beck’s conversion is phony.

A case in point: In taking back his Obama slur, Beck still dismissed the president as “a guy who understands the world through liberation theology,” as if that was a bad thing, Yet, liberation theology is precisely what King practiced, as alluded to in his 1963 “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” and stated perhaps most emphatically in his 1958 book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. The relevant excerpt:

“Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion. Such a religion is the kind that Marxists like to see - an opiate of the people.”

At the rally right-wing darling and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin likewise spoke contradictorily about King. On the one hand: “On this ground where we are so honored to stand today, we feel the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” On the other hand: “We must not fundamentally transform America as someone wants. We must restore America and restore her honor.”

That “someone” is, presumably, Obama. More to the point, the fundamental transformation of America is what King was all about, as he particularly made clear in his 1967 “Where Do We Go From Here?” speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. An excerpt:

“The Movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. … One day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there 40 million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society.”

Since fundamental change through liberation theology was so central to King, there is absolutely no way to trash either concept and still claim to be his disciple.

Beck and Palin remain lost in the wilderness of social unfairness, self-delusion and hucksterism.

Relevant links:

“Martin Luther King would have been on Glenn Beck's chalkboard,” Media Matters
King’s “I Have a Dream” speech

King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail"
King’s “Where Do We Go From Here?” speech
Paper on the 1968 campaign rhetoric of George Wallace
Youtube video comparing King’s words at 1963 March on Washington with words of participants at Glenn Beck’s rally

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Call Agent Mulder: Memories of Obama’s Christianity wiped out!

Remember that humongous hullabaloo not so long ago when candidate Barack Obama’s detractors were super-gluing him to his retired United Church of Christ pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, in the hope of gumming up the Illinois senator’s campaign for the White House?

There was much talk then about Obama’s longtime attendance at a church with a pastor who gave fiery, controversial sermons. Needless to say, the United Church of Christ is Christian – a major Christian denomination, in fact.

Well, memory of that episode has suddenly evaporated from the minds of many of Obama’s present detractors. What is he? Christian? Muslim? Hard to tell, they now say.

The ranks of the amnesiac include the Rev. Franklin Graham, who told CNN in effect that all he had to go on was Obama’s word that he was a Christian. Yes, he was quick to add, he had no choice but to believe Obama. The faithful caught the wink: You may exercise the choice not to believe.

Graham gave further comfort to these swallowers of tall tales, claiming Obama was born a Muslim – which would have been news to his agnostic mother and atheistic father. Yes, the senior Barack Obama grew up Muslim, but came to believe that religion was mere superstition, according to his son’s autobiography. What’s more, the elder Obama played little role in raising his son, having walked out of his life when he was 2.

Graham’s mealy mouthed words go a long way to explaining why outlandish myths persist about this president, as underscored by a recent poll showing a surprising growth in the share of Americans who buy the lie that Obama is Muslim – from one of every nine in March of last year to one of every five now, according to the Pew Research Center. Uncertainty grew, too. The share of Americans who say they don’t know to which religion Obama belongs shot up from 34% to 43%.

The growth testifies to the success of a campaign of disinformation being waged against Obama -- in the blogosphere, over talk radio and on Fox News. And instead of acting responsibly by dispelling the myths forthright, many leaders on the right, like Graham, are abetting the campaign.

There are bigger whoppers than the claim Obama is a Muslim. A huge, out-and-out lie with stubborn currency is the claim that Obama was not born in America and is not an American citizen – a fabrication Republican leaders have been loath to dispel.

Though the Rev. Graham doesn’t think so – he believes Islam is evil – describing Obama as Muslim would be OK if in fact he was. His enemies are trying to attach that false label to him, however, so that the prejudice that some Americans feel toward Muslims would redound on Obama.

Yes, the current anti-Obama narrative – that the president may be Muslim – contradicts an earlier one – that Obama was a longtime disciple of a mad Christian minister. But nobody seems to notice, much less care.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Questions and answers about the Islamic center planned for Lower Manhattan

Why build a mosque that will loom over Ground Zero?

No looming will occur. Without x-ray vision, you won’t even see the Islamic center from Ground Zero. The 13-story center will sit two blocks away amid an array of tall buildings – we’re talking Manhattan, remember. By the way, the center won’t be just a mosque. It will be like a YMCA with a basketball court, a swimming pool and everything, as well as a place to worship.

Why then does the news media keep referring to the planned center as the “Ground Zero mosque”?

The news media has the unfortunate habit of parroting loaded terms coined by the rightwing blogosphere and punditocracy.

Still, wouldn’t an Islamic center sully hallowed ground?

That makes sense only if you believe Islam is evil or profane and that its contamination can leap two densely packed, commercial blocks. An argument can be made that Ground Zero’s hallowedness is all the more reason to have places of worship nearby, including mosques.

But the fanatics who destroyed the Twin Towers were Islamic extremists who acted in the name of Allah. Wouldn’t a nearby mosque disrespect their memory?

Actually, the center could serve their memory by acting as a moderating force within Islam and thereby tamping down terrorism. The imam behind the development opposes Islamic extremism and he has invited New Yorkers of all faiths to visit the center. Besides, if terrorists had destroyed the Twin Towers in the name of Christianity, would it follow that Christian churches should be barred from the area? In fact, Timothy McVeigh had destroyed the federal building in Oklahoma City to avenge a Christian cult for its fatal confrontation with federal authorities in Waco, Texas. Yet, that bombing didn’t put Christianity on trial.

But what about the relatives of those who died in the attack on the Twin Towers? They oppose construction of the center. Shouldn’t their wishes, whether right or wrong, be respected?

Actually, some relatives do oppose construction and some don’t. Keep in mind, too, that dozens of those who died in the Twin Towers were themselves Muslim. Like the relatives in general, the ones who oppose the center are generally in pain, but punishing a whole group, whether a race or a religion or a nationality, for the sins of some of its members remains wrong.

If opposition to the center has no merit, how did this controversy get so huge?

Well, rainstorms on Manhattan get more news play than rainstorms in, say, Peoria, Ill. Credit mostly, however, the rightwing punditocracy, which knows how to push the right buttons. The basic development – an effort to build an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan out of the view of the Twin Towers site -- has only local newsworthiness. After all, two mosques already lie in the vicinity of Ground Zero, and without controversy. But the fear mongers on the right blew up the innocent effort to open a multi-use cultural center into a dastardly plot to erect a monster mosque at Ground Zero as a sort of Islamic trophy for the destruction of the Twin Towers. The big, dumb media, alas, is just too slow-footed to fight assaults on the truth from that quarter.