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.