Monday, August 30, 2010

Thirsting for Leadership on the Economy

I am not an economist, nor do I play one on TV. I am struggling along with others to understand all the moving – and not moving – parts. And I am yearning for President Obama to outline a bold and comprehensive approach to solidifying gains and moving forward.

Today’s “hastily arranged” Rose Garden speech by Obama was hardly satisfying. While he called for a comprehensive strategy on the economy, the only specific message was to blast Senate Republicans for blocking a bill providing tax cuts for small businesses, which is where jobs are created. It ought to pass, but he was beyond vague in laying out other strategies. I get the sickening feeling he doesn’t know. That feeling was reinforced by microphone difficulty, promptly the President to tap it repeatedly, asking “Can you guys still hear us?”

We can hear you, Mr. President, but what impact are you able to have? He reminded us that it “took ten years to dig us into this hole,” and it’s going to take longer than we want to dig us out. But we shouldn’t be paralyzed into inaction because of the more than $11 trillion debt built between 2001 and 2008. (In fact, the greatest build-up of debt since World War II occurred under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.) Yes, we all worry about the annual deficit and the aggregate national debt. But the answer to that is to grow the economy, and that means adding jobs.

We’ve been in a vicious downward spiral, wherein the economy lost some $12 trillion dollars in the housing and stock market crashes. Reduced consumer confidence, purchasing power and demand for goods chilled business investment. Steps taken at the end of the Bush administration and by the Obama administration stopped the great recession from becoming a full-blown depression. The economy has added an average of nearly 200,000 jobs a month this year, half in the private sector. At a minimum, the economic stimulus act reduced our net job loss. But we have a long way to go to make a dent in the unemployment rate. And, even if the rate does go down, if you don’t have a job, for you the unemployment rate is still 100 percent.

As has been noted, the economy has to grow 3 percent just to keep the current 9.5 percent unemployment from increasing. (Many economists say that the number is closer to 16 percent if you count those who have stopped looking for new jobs and those who are underemployed.) Yet quarterly economic growth (1.6 percent) was well below the 2.4 percent estimate; the rate of recovery has been slowing. Even if we achieved the rate of employment growth we enjoyed in the late ‘90’s, we wouldn’t reach pre-recession unemployment levels until 2015.

As Congressman John Tierney said in a recent speech, quoting others, “’I told you’ so is not a policy, and blame is not a solution.” Tierney and others in the Massachusetts delegation say it is premature to stop priming the pump. We need to sustain investments in infrastructure. (Even Scott Brown, speaking at the New England Council, conceded the need for “targeted stimulus,” while insisting he remains opposed to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act..)

Will Obama’s “comprehensive” strategy include tax incentives for starting new businesses and for hiring? Will he address the need to end tax breaks that encourage corporations to outsource jobs overseas? Where do we go from here, and what will President Obama do to lead us there?

For a man who inspired hope and big picture vision just two years ago, for a President who led this nation to pass a generational health care bill as well as financial services reform, his vision is flirting with failure on the economy. As E.J. Dionne points out today in the Washington Post, “Obama has created the impression that he is taking things one decision at a time, without a passion for how he would like the country to look in the long run.” 

Let’s hope he uses the Labor Day holiday to outline an imaginative and comprehensive approach to creating what Labor Day is all about: jobs.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below

Sunday, August 22, 2010

"The Mosque" near Ground Zero: a battle of the heart, head and gut

Sorting out my feelings about the so-called "Mosque" near Ground Zero has been an odyssey of heart, gut and head.  The journey has not been easy.

Some 9/11 survivors are genuinely aghast at the location of this proposed Islamic community center. There’s precedent for this reaction. When Carmelite nuns sought to establish a convent near Auschwitz, protests led Pope John Paul II to intervene. No matter how well intentioned the nuns were, the juxtaposition was deemed too hurtful. And I’m not sure that the Imam establishing the New York Islamic center, Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, who, with his wife, has a strong record of interfaith activities, is necessarily as well-intentioned as those Carmelite nuns. After all, has he not partially blamed the United States for the attack on 9/11? More significantly,  hasn’t he refused to identify Hamas as a terrorist organization?

Tell me again why we’re in Afghanistan? Why are we still taking off our shoes in airports and spending billions on Homeland Security? Haven’t respected intelligence sources made clear that we should expect another 9/11 attack? Hasn’t there been a common theme to most of the plots uncovered in recent years? Sure, anyone can cherry-pick the Koran, the way someone can cherry-pick the Bible, for threatening quotations. But, as the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) regularly makes clear, there is indeed a frequent disconnect between what is said to Arabic versus English speaking audiences on the very same points.

What are we to make of the history [Jerusalem, Istanbul, Cordoba] of Muslims building mosques on special sites of their vanquished enemies as a sign of victory? Even if there are many Muslims in lower Manhattan who deserve a facility and there are already two store-front mosques in the neighborhood, this is the one that has offended so many victims of the 9/11 attack. If a symbolically important constituency is going to feel real pain, and a purpose of the proposed community center building itself is to build bridges to non-Muslim Americans, why not just build it somewhere else nearby, even if the developers have the right to build it there?

New York Governor David Paterson offered to help the group find another site for their community center, a gesture that suggests he is right where the American people are. Two thirds support the Constitutional right to build "the mosque" but don’t think it is right to do so there.

Charles Krauthammer has written persuasively on this. Pieces of one of the planes, he said, landed on the building itself, making it part of ground zero. “Location matters. Especially this location. Ground Zero is the site of the greatest mass murder in American history -- perpetrated by Muslims of a particular Islamist orthodoxy in whose cause they died and in whose name they killed.” He notes that, “Of course that strain represents only a minority of Muslims. Islam is no more intrinsically Islamist than present-day Germany is Nazi -- yet despite contemporary Germany's innocence, no German of goodwill would even think of proposing a German cultural center at, say, Treblinka.”

So this has been my struggle.

When President Obama spoke out on the issue, he botched it totally. Initially, he declared the obvious that "as a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country." In remarks at the annual White House iftar, a fast-breaking Ramadan meal, he said, "This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are."

Glenn Greenwald, writing in Salon, said “This is one of the most impressive and commendable things Obama has done since being inaugurated.” Other predictably liberal voices, including the Globe, weighed in with similar messages.

I, by contrast, felt annoyed at Obama’s behavior, first because he unnecessarily stepped into a local zoning issue when he knew or should have known it would be used to distract from the larger national agenda and second because, if he were going to make a principled defense of First Amendment freedoms, he should have done it before a broader and more diverse audience.

I was no less irritated the next day when the President backtracked from the logic of his principled position, saying that, while the Muslims had a right to establish the mosque there, that didn’t make it right. His backsliding managed to anger people on both sides of the issue.

Some supporters note that, since 2002, there has actually a mosque inside the Pentagon, where 184 people died when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the building on 9/11. Strictly speaking, this is inaccurate. There is an all-purpose religious chapel inside the Pentagon, used alternately by Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Muslims and Hindus. Perhaps, if the center near Ground Zero were multi-faith, it would be easier to accept.

Still, my head has heeded New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who said unequivocally: “Government can’t ban religious use of private property... Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11....They share our grief...We can’t betray our nation’s values of religious freedom and cave to popular sentiments." To do so, he also said, is to hand victory to the terrorists. It does seem that stopping the "mosque" would give credence to those around the world who believe the United States has declared war on Islam.

Given the number of sex shops and off-track betting facilities in the area, I am almost amused by those who protest the "mosque’s" contaminating the “hallowed ground” near the World Trade Center. But what's far more  worrisome is the growing opposition to building mosques at such disparate locations as Ootsburg, Wisconsin, Temecula, California and Murfreesboro, Tennessee. This debate has gone beyond concern for hallowed ground to outright bigotry, akin to keeping Jews, blacks or Catholics out of the neighborhood. Has Islamophobia now made American Muslims fair game for unbridled fear-mongering and calumnies?

The debate increasingly has the stench of the anti-immigrant nativist No-Nothing Movement of the mid 19th century. And the repugnant comments by Newt Gingrich (who should know better) and Sarah Palin (who probably couldn't care less) only fan the smoldering flames, accelerated by fears of economic uncertainty.

Clearly the bloggers, cable bloviators and headline writers have made matters worse. But one of the biggest mistakes some commentators are making in today’s overheated dialogue is to conclude that all opponents of the Lower Manhattan "mosque" location are Muslim haters and right-wing political agitators or to assume that all those who support the "mosque" are fuzzy-thinking reflexive liberals. There are plenty of people who have had to work hard to understand their heads,hearts and guts. This is more than  just a media-brewed tempest in the dog days of August. It has tapped into something deeper. It’s a legitimate and uncomfortable deliberation – and an important one – to understand who we are as individuals and what we represent as a nation.

Perhaps the bottom line is this: The decisions should be made at the local level by New Yorkers, as they are seeking to. But to reject the 51 Park community center, including  its space for prayer,  implies that all Muslims are terrorists. This makes no more sense than concluding that all Jews are assassins because an Orthodox fanatic assassinated Yitzhak Rabin. Or that all evangelicals are murderers because some have killed supporters of abortion rights.

One of the great strengths of America has been its ability to foster tolerance and integrate disparate groups into a pluralistic nation. Europe has been hobbled by the inability to foster that integration, especially among younger Muslims. Imam Faisal is a practitioner of Sufism, a mystical form of Islam, which is an anathema to Osama bin Laden and the Wahabi extremists. He says he wants to open the religion to American values and offer an alternative model of Islam to the world. To undermine his efforts, and those of others who seek to do the same elsewhere in the country, is  short-sighted and could be dangerously counterproductive.

-Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Down-ballot Auditor’s Race Deserves Our Attention

Say the word “auditor,” and you probably think sweaty palms, sleepless nights and maybe a nervous tic. But the race for state auditor has nothing directly to do with your tax returns or individual finances. The words “state auditor” should, if the job is done right, be reassuring for every taxpayer in the Commonwealth.

It’s the job of the auditor to oversee how money is spent by government entities and contractors, to make sure they’re following the letter of the law. Joe DeNucci has been auditor since 1987 and is retiring. Now Suzanne Bump, a former state representative (1985-93 ) and former Secretary of the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development (under Deval Patrick) is running to succeed him.(DeNucci has endorsed her.)  She says she wants to take the office to the next step – to go beyond financial auditing to performance auditing, and actually improve how systems work. Now there’s a novel idea.

Bump has the right concept for running the office and the experience to implement her ideas. The problem is that half the people in the Commonwealth don’t have a clue what the Auditor does and, of those who do, many probably don’t care. State Auditor is at the bottom of the ballot, the most obscure of any statewide office. And yet arguably it’s one of the most important.

It’s not just a matter of, as former Pennsylvania Governor Milton Shapp used to say, making sure the “gazintas equal the gazoutas”-- making sure that government doesn’t spend more than it takes in. Performance audits look for inefficiencies. They look for ways to do things better. They could, in a Bump example, recommend changes of the state’s health law, which has people bouncing from Mass Connector if they’re working to something else if they lose their job and on to MassHealth when unemployment benefits run out and back to MassHealth or another insurer if they regain employment. The Auditor’s office could provide a roadmap to continuity and an end to administrative fragmentation that serves neither the consumer or the fiscal needs of the Commonwealth.

So, too, performance auditing could help rationalize our system of multiple economic development and workforce development agencies, something Bump worked on as State Secretary. And it could include an analysis of the efficacy of tax incentives and the costs and benefits of  potential outsourcing proposals.

The basic State Auditor function is a rather bloodless one. The Auditor is, at core, a bean counter, and the public has to have faith in the bean counting process to make sure its tax dollars are well spent. Detached professionalism must be there, but it is only the starting point for change. The auditor has broad discretion (within professional standards) to go past the minimum statutory requirements, to respond to specific agency backlogs, particular spending patterns, and can respond to recommendations from the executive and legislative branches for other areas that need closer scrutiny. It's these discretionary powers that make the choice of auditor particularly important.

The Auditor also has to be a good communicator, translating the department’s reports into blueprints for action. That means – forgive the pun – bumping up against entrenched bureaucracies and vested interests, especially legislative ones. Is she willing to do that? I ask. “Yes,” she says, with a broad smile, not missing a beat. “That’s what the office is about.” She is, she says, “willing to “ruffle feathers.”

Assuming people care enough to vote in this race, Bump should do well in the September 14 Democratic primary against Worcester County Sheriff Guy Glodis, who had succeeded Matt Amorello in the State Senate. Glodis has been described charitably as a flamboyantly conservative and, by David Bernstein of the Boston Phoenix as one” who has left a trail of crude comments that gives him a reputation as a piggish, misogynistic boor who would be an embarrassment to represent the party on the statewide ballot.”  He does, however, have a bunch of labor endorsements, which could help him out.

Her other primary opponent, 31-year-old Mike Lake, has a résumé that reads better than it lives. He is currently executive director of Northeastern University’s fledgling World Class Cities Partnership. He also worked at the White House as an intern at the age of 22, prior to his graduation from Northeastern. His other experience seems to have been largely in political campaigns. Again, the Phoenix’s Bernstein has researched all this. Lake is a guy who may have a future in politics, but not, it seems, in the Auditor’s office, at least not now.

In this year of outsiders, the hardest fight for Suzanne Bump will likely come in the general election, assuming the Republican primary is won by CPA Mary Connaughton, a former chief financial officer of the Mass. State Lottery who worked for Ernst and Young and was on the Commission of Judicial Conduct and will likely portray herself as a populist outsider.

Connaughton ran unsuccessfully for state representative in 2004 and is known to some for being the voice of opposition on the Mass. Turnpike Authority. She was very stirring in her opposition to increased MassPike tolls for those of us driving into Boston from Metrowest, but offered no creative alternatives to paying for the Big Dig.. Connaughton has also been outspoken in her criticism of Patrick Administration assessments of savings to be achieved by the new Mass. Department of Transportation.

If Connaughton tries to replicate Scott Brown's success  in November, Bump will have to remind people that between her stint in the legislature, which ended in 1994, and her being named State Secretary in 2008, she worked for 14 years in the private sector and has broad support from respected opinion leaders  outside of government. She needs to do this to balance the insider image created by the nearly daily announcements of endorsements by elected officials. But its Bump's superior knowledge of the complexity of  government that may actually help make her a better auditor.

We could  have a very interesting race for Auditor in November if it is Democrat Bump versus Republican Connaughton. People may actually learn something about state government, how it works, and how it could work better.

- Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Pakistan flood challenges compassion fatigue and local politics

ABC news calls the Pakistani flooding “the worst floods in memory.” Fourteen million homeless. Six million children affected. Sixteen percent of the country under water due to two weeks of monsoon rains, which have created literally hundreds of lakes, some the size of the state of Delaware.

It’s hard to get one’s mind around the scope of the disaster, and some may not even be inclined to try. After all, the Pakistani government has been duplicitous with us, taking our aid but providing cover to our enemies.

There’s not enough food, medicine, drinkable water, shelter, relief workers. The United States has pledged $71 million, and the United Nations has pledged to round up $459 million in emergency aid. Meanwhile, the militant Islamists damn foreign aid as a tool of subjugation. And the corrupt Pakistani government, which has failed to move proactively to build dams to combat previous monsoons, is failing again to meet the current challenge, in effect ceding the game to terrorist groups who will use the opportunity to win the hearts and minds of struggling disaster victims in the water-logged nation. If the government doesn’t serve the people and extremist charities use, as Asia Pacific News put it, “soft power” to win over disaster victims, it will ratchet up the attraction of extremist groups in this nuclear nation, and we will all be the worse for it.
The Christian Science Monitor raises the specter that the failure of local government to help in the tragedy will wreck the possibility of meaningful democratic government in Pakistan.
Providing aid to Pakistan is far more complicated than providing aid to Haiti, where at least the sometimes disjointed NGO’s were not fighting each other militarily or even Indonesia after the tsunami where the Aceh Islamic separatists worked cooperatively with international aid groups.

Recent stories by National Public Radio have highlighted this complexity in Pakistan. Take for example the Swat Valley, “where residents were still trying to recover from a major battle between Taliban militants and the army last spring that caused widespread destruction and drove nearly 2 million people from their homes.” The floods are piling misery upon misery in an unspeakable way.
Family friend Daniel Holmberg, is originally from Newton. A relief worker for some 20 years, he now heads the Pakistan mission for NGO Action Against Hunger (ACF). He worries that the international reaction may be nowhere what is needed because individual donors just move from one disaster to another. This, though the Pakistan disaster is said to eclipse the 2004 Tsunami and the Haiti earthquake put together, in terms of the number of people made homeless.

In an interview in France24 , Dan said, “Certain disasters such as the Haiti earthquake captured world attention. It is difficult to gauge the media coverage of the flooding, and I hope that Pakistan’s global image right now will not prejudice its people’s desperate needs.”

Dan sent the photos shown in this posting, which appeared in the Guardian. This young man has run relief operations in the worst hell-holes in the world, in wartime Iraq, in the Sudan. There is an air of frustration and urgency in his tone that should spur others to action.

It is very clear that if well-intentioned governments and institutions don’t respond, militant Islamists used to relying on terror to cow populations will step in to fill the void and use the opportunity to sow dissension for generations to come.

- Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Remembering August 3rd and Silent Cal’s Values of the Past

Eight-seven years ago yesterday, then-Vice President Calvin Coolidge was visiting his father, Colonel John Coolidge, in the tiny Vermont village of Plymouth Notch when word arrived that President Warren Harding had died. By the light of a kerosene lamp, John Coolidge, who was a notary public, swore in his son as the 30th President of the United States (at the desk pictured here). A visit this past weekend to that spare birthplace tells a lot about the Puritan values that helped shaped New England and, for a time, this country.

Living the good life back then was said to be all about thrift, honesty, hard work and self-reliance. If we talk about that today, we’re taken to be anti-welfare and unenlightened. But the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. And understanding Coolidge’s remarkable story does create an appreciation of simpler times.

The remote town had a one-room school house for 23 kids aged 5 to 18, his father’s country store, a post office, meeting house and half a dozen homes, surrounded by farmland. Coolidge’s father was a merchant, a farmer, a legislator, and ran a cheese factory. The boy helped in the fields and the house and attended school committee meetings with his father. Imagine a father trying to do that to his son today. Calvin is quoted as saying, “It’s hard to develop a better surrounding for the growing up of a boy than I had.”

He went away to Black River Academy, then Amherst College, from which he graduated in 1895. He practiced law in Northampton and began his amazing political career: state legislator, Northampton mayor, state senator, state senate president, lieutenant governor, and twice governor of the Commonwealth..

In 1919 he gained a national reputation when he called out the National Guard to quell a police strike, saying the police had no right to strike against public safety. The attending publicity propelled him the following year to Vice President on the ticket with Warren Harding. Then –on August 3, 1923 –he became President of the United States. He was elected on his own in 1924 but declined to run again in 1928 saying it was too long for one man to serve.

As governor, he was known as a progressive. He supported women’s right to vote and fought to improve child labor, worker wage and safety laws. But in the White House he opposed such social reforms, believing them to be the responsibility of state and local governments. Governing in the Roaring Twenties, he eschewed regulations that restricted business activity. (“…the chief business of the American people is business.”) On his watch, federal spending didn’t increase, the federal debt dropped and taxes were eliminated save for the richest two percent. It made him a hero to Ronald Reagan and other small government advocates. Consistent with Coolidge’s philosophy, he vetoed farm subsidies, saying, “farmers never have made much money. I don’t believe we can do much about it.” How much his laissez faire attitudes contributed to the Depression is the subject of debate. His tenure was a breath of fresh air compared to the corruption of the Harding Administration.

Known as “silent Cal” because of his reserved personal demeanor, he remarked “I have never been hurt by what I have not said” and “Four-fifths of all our troubles would disappear, if we would only sit down and keep still.” Nevetheless, he didn’t run from the press, and met with reporters more often (549 press conferences) than any other president in history.

He spent almost every vacation at home in Vermont with his father, with the top floor of the post office serving as the summer White House. With the assistance of only a secretary and stenographer, he attended only to “national business that wouldn’t keep.” For relaxation, they did farm work. Coolidge was said to “like pitch forks better than golf clubs.”

Some of the hot issues he had to deal with, from international responsibilities to domestic pressures, are still around today, and his Presidential record is mixed. He granted full citizenship to American Indians and opposed the Ku Klux Klan, but took a hard line on immigration, signing a law barring Orientals from the country, (though he expressed regrets). And, as a foreshadowing of Katrina, he was much criticized for his slow response to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and his disinterest in federal flood control.

Standing in the peaceful quiet of Coolidge’s homestead on the same day as the opulent Clinton wedding in Rhinebeck, remembering stories about the personal excesses of elected leaders, and reflecting on how vitriolic and unproductive our partisan politics has become, we are aware how much the world has changed. It is sobering to remember that even during the Roaring Twenties, a time of celebrity and excess, a leader could comfortably represent, for better or worse, traditional values of rectitude and modesty. It is said of him that he was “a man who understands the people because he never ceased to be one of the people.”

Maybe that’s what’s so appealing about Coolidge - despite my differences with his positions on many issues. It’s a missing element, the absence of which today turns so many people off to politics and politicians.

- Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below