Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Barney Frank’s back to his old self, provocative and, this time, unsettling

It was vintage Barney Frank at last Friday’s meeting of the New England Council. He was savagely funny, insightful, acerbic and provocative. This was particularly true when he discussed the federal deficit and lifting the debt ceiling, the deadline for which seems to have now been moved from May back to August. He ruffled more than a few feathers.

“The debt limit isn’t being raised as a favor to me,” the Fourth District Congressman scoffed, noting “I didn’t vote for what caused that deficit (two wars and the Bush tax cuts).” And he’s right, a lot of the sanctimonious hand-wringing by so-called deficit hawks is being done by the very solons who advocated borrowing heavily against our grandchildren’s futures rather than call for shared post- 9/11 sacrifice and paying for our wars out of current revenues. These are also the same wise ones who told us that deficits caused by the Bush tax cuts didn’t matter and would be good for the economy.

We would expect neophyte legislators swept into office by Tea Party hysteria last fall to take reflexively stupid positions, saying simply as they have just “cut spending and we won’t default.” As Barney notes, there is waste everywhere in government, but it’s not layered around the edges and able to be easily trimmed. It’s marbled throughout the system and requires careful cutting. But that requires hard work, and is not susceptible to ham-handed demagoguery.

Frank agrees that Medicare needs to be addressed “but not alone,” adding people want to be well- treated when they’re sick. For years a prime Frank target has been what he calls unnecessary military spending , particularly that which is spent on the defense of NATO countries . The rationale for the post-WWII commitment protect them against Soviet communism is long gone.. Nor do we need the overkills from three different deterrent forces, the Army’s ICBM system; the Air Force’s SAC (Strategic Air Command) power and the Navy’s nuclear submarine fleet. Give up just one of the three, and you could save $15 billion - $20 billion a year.

He also asserts it’s time to leave both Iraq and Afghanistan. As for the enduring Al Qaeda threat, he added, we can’t create political will from the outside and …we can’t plug every rat-hole in the world.” Furthermore, he says: “We’re 3500 miles from Libya. France and Italy could spit and hit Libya if the winds are at their backs. Why does the world depend on us?” Big cuts can be made in DOD, but so far there are few takers on the other side.

So we return to the looming debt ceiling crisis. Barney correctly notes that an important point being missed is that the debt limit is not about the future, but about past obligations. But then he disturbingly concludes that, given the congressional impasse, we just may have to resign ourselves to not increasing the ceiling on schedule.

Applying an inapt domestic analogy to the international stage, he matter-of-factly says the inability of Republicans and Democrats to agree to a new cap may lead inevitably to a “temporary hiatus—a day, a week or two-- in our ability to pay our bills.” Seemingly untroubled by that outcome, he reminds us that Congress only passed the 2008 emergency Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) after an earlier NO vote sent the market to its biggest one day drop ever.

This shock therapy would mean the first time in United States history that this nation will have defaulted on the payment of principal and interest on government bonds. Frank’s apparent flippancy on this is more than a little unnerving. Failure to maintain the nation’s creditworthiness could have global implications, none of them pretty. It could plunge us back into recession, according to Alan Blinder , Princeton University economics professor and former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, in the WSJ.
Interest rates would rise dramatically, Blinder warns, as other nations begin to see debt ceiling politics as a permanent part of American political gamesmanship. It could also affect the willingness of other countries to regard the US as a safe haven in troubled times and could hasten moves to switch investments to a basket of currencies, not the dollar.

The fact that some Republicans are willing to contemplate cuts of 40 percent so as not to exceed the debt ceiling is, as Frank says, “evidence of a dark, self-destructive impulse.” That Barney Frank would, even for the rhetorical sport of shocking his audience, at which he often excels, toy with going that route, is unsettling and discouraging.

Maybe I’m overreacting and this is just part of a clever Brer Rabbit strategy. But I fear it is really rooted in his very bleak assessment of the current political landscape. “John Boehner has lost control of the House,” he says. “The most right-wing elements have taken over.” The Tea Party is in charge because once-thoughtful Republican conservatives now fear losing their primaries to more radical right candidates. And the Senate, undemocratic and dysfunctional with its 60 vote distortion of the Constitution and American history, is little better.

If Tom Coburn walks away from one effort and Barney Frank from another, where are we to look for leadership? Ironically, the most reasoned recent response to the debt ceiling date came on WBUR's On Point from David Stockman, Ronald Reagan’s old budget director, who took both parties to task and spoke truths that current politicians are afraid to embrace.
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Herald v Obama saga reveals much about how politicians deal with the media

Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. Mark Twain knew it to be true. The underlying message is no less true today, despite how communications technology has changed the nature of the media. It’s really disappointing that Barack Obama’s press staff may not get it.

They give the appearance of being intent on freezing out media who are hostile to him. Most recently, the Boston Herald whined that it was being denied access to the presidential visit to Boston on Wednesday and was barred from participation in a press pool. According to Media Nation critic Dan Kennedy, there was less to this than meets the eye. The White House rotates those in pool coverage of local Presidential visits; the Herald couldn’t participate in this pool because it was full, but could do so in a future one.

But Presidential media staff person Matt Lehrich (apparently David Axelrod’s nephew ) responded to the Herald’s complaint in a way that should get him fired. His response to the Herald implied that the White House was miffed when the paper ran a front-page op ed by Mitt Romney during a Presidential visit to Boston in March. The Herald quite properly publicized Lehrich’s email, which was to all intents and purposes a threat to retaliate by limiting access to media critical of the President.

Regardless of the facts, people are quite ready to believe that the Herald has been discriminated against because they remember how the President quite famously froze out Fox News, refusing for a long time to respond to Fox reporters or appear on the “fair and balanced” network.

Any hint of punitive press strategy seems just dumb. For one thing, it is counterproductive, spurring a spate of articles and commentary by the frozen ones, no fewer than five articles in Thursday morning’s Herald alone and more today. But it isn’t just that allegations of press discrimination prompts still more attention paid to the thin skin of the Administration. It conveys a sense that the Administration can’t stand up to criticism.

Such instances are legion. Governor Deval Patrick learned the hard way in his first term that you can’t let the media know they’re getting to you. You’re the person in power. You should be able to stand up to the pressure and deftly respond. It doesn’t matter if a certain media outlet isn’t particularly fair to you. A free press means that media of all stripes have the latitude to criticize you whether they’re right or wrong. You gain credibility by going head to head with your critics. And no reporter should be pressured to pull his or her punches for fear of getting frozen out.

My first personal exposure to Obama was in Chicago when he filled in for an ailing Studs Terkel at a meeting of the National Conference of Editorial Writers in 2006. Obama hadn’t yet been elected to the U.S. Senate. We were all impressed by his thoughtful, nuanced responses even to some contentious questions. I left with the feeling that here was a politician who knew how to communicate with opinion writers and wasn’t afraid of criticism. Increasingly, as those opinions have become more acerbic in some quarters, he and his media staff need to resist a bunker mentality when it comes to irritating reporters.

I feel the same way when Senator Scott Brown dodges questions, either by appearing to take both sides of an issue or literally by ducking out of a venue by the back door, which some reporters have experienced.

Politicians should understand how bad such behavior can make them look and direct their staffs accordingly. Then again, the public has such a low regard for the Fourth Estate that dodging or freezing out reporters may simply look like a low-risk strategy to protect their images in the short term, rather than an arrogant contempt for the public’s right to know.

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

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Kirby Perkins lives on in the A+ winners honored by WCVB-TV

Kirby Perkins was a great political reporter, a lot of fun and a good friend. He died of a heart attack 14 years ago at the shockingly young age of 49. While he rubbed elbows with every significant politician of the time, his most lasting public legacy comes from the series of profiles he initiated at Channel 5 called A+.

The station had long done a series called High Five, hailing stand-out athletes who also did well academically. But Kirby believed that society shouldn’t value performance in sports more than performance in academics. So he started the A+ series to celebrate high school students who did well academically, often against great odds. After his death, Channel 5 and Kirby’s widow, Emily Rooney, former Channel 5 news director and now anchor of WGBH’s Greater Boston, started the Kirby Perkins A+ Scholarship Fund, to award scholarships to some of those A+ students. [Full disclosure: my husband, Jim Barron, sits on the board of the Fund.]

This morning, the Kirby Perkins A+ Scholarship Fund awarded scholarships to six wonderful young graduating seniors.

Dorchester High’s Long Dang is the son of Vietnamese immigrants who never finished high school. He is valedictorian of his class, a champion debater and a leader in improving the sense of community at Dorchester High. He is going to Williams College.

Pingree School’s Thuly Tran is the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, whose family fled to a refugee camp in Malaysia, then to the Philippines and eventually landed in Lynn, Massachusetts. Described by a teacher as “an intellectual firecracker,” Thuly is fluent in at least four languages (including English, Mandarin and Spanish) and is off to Wellesley College in the fall.

Hull High’s Jamie Clasby had to grow up fast when her father, a firefighter, was paralyzed when a fire set off an explosion that lodged a bullet in his spine. She was six when it happened. He died when she was 15 years old. For years, Jamie was fully involved in caring for him while her mother worked fulltime. In everything she does, she follows her father’s exhortation that “Clasbys never quit.” Now off to Bridgewater State, her story is one of dedication and hard work to honor her father.

Boston English High’s Juan Colon’s father was incarcerated for five years, and he too had to grow up very fast, learning what road he wanted to go down. He chose education and hard work, went to the top of his class and is president of the National Honor Society. Helped by school programs and mentors, Juan now mentors other young people in the community. He is going to Boston College this fall.

Quincy High’s Gerald McCarthy has been blind since birth. Adopted from the Philippines, he is at the top of his class and a musician, playing piano, clarinet, guitar and tympani. He also composes and sings in a cappella choir. He will attend Eastern Nazarene College.

Taunton High’s Jasmine Payne grew up as the daughter of a disabled single mother . Despite very tough times in a strapped household, she emerged as an excellent student, sings in the school’s show choir, is a leader in school council, a debater and a varsity athlete. She views her mother as a model of persistence. Jasmine going to Spellman, wants a career in international relations.

Rooney exhorted these outstanding scholarship recipients to look beyond their immediate concerns and stay plugged into the news of the world. Awareness of global issues, she reminded them, is important to the community and to their own success.

Channel 5 meteorologist and feature reporter David Brown has done an outstanding job reporting on the A+ nominees. He immerses himself in their stories and is a genuinely enthusiastic booster.

If you’re interested in the Kirby Perkins A+ Scholarship Fund, check it out on thebostonchannel.com http://www.thebostonchannel.com/aplus/index.html, If you want to contribute, mail to the Kirby Perkins A+ Scholarship Fund, WCVB-TV, 5 TV Place, Needham, MA 02494.

Looking at these outstanding young people, I can only think how proud Kirby would be of this aspect of his enduring legacy.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Treasurer Steve Grossman is in high gear

Mass. Treasurer Steve Grossman’s father used to quote Baltimore Orioles legendary third baseman Brooks Robinson, who often said, “Make optimism a way of life.” And that’s the attitude that Grossman reflects, predicting to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce today that the Commonwealth will come out of the recession better than it went in. If it does, steps that Grossman is taking as Treasurer will play a role in that.

His approach to governance is really refreshing. The four fundamentals of customer services he learned as a private businessman he is making cornerstones of his role as state treasurer: service, quality, value and professionalism. He says he intends to use his office to protect our money, create jobs, promote growth and enhance competitiveness.

A major focus is on the 85 percent of job growth that comes from small business. The biggest barrier to small business is access to capital, which is why he is placing up to $300 million in state deposits in community banks, up to $5 million each. Forty-six banks have signed up; his goal is 200 community banks. The idea is to support growth in small businesses, especially those owned by women, minorities and immigrant entrepreneurs, who have traditionally had difficulty getting capital from the largest banks.

The idea is that Massachusetts taxpayers’ money will be deposited in Massachusetts banks, loaned to Massachusetts businesses, and will create jobs in Massachusetts. Grossman talked about this during his campaign, and he is already moving on the idea. $55 million has already been allocated.

Grossman is also pushing for needed pension reform, including raising the retirement age for new state workers, eliminating incentives for early retirements and changing the way benefits are calculated. He’s taking on the pension issue because it is essential to reduce our indebtedness to be viewed positively by the ratings agencies in the credit markets.

Toward the same end, he wants to take some of the state’s increased tax revenues and build the rainy day fund back up to $1 billion. He notes that Massachusetts and Tennessee were the only two states given a positive outlook by the ratings agencies, and he wants to solidify that position.

Grossman also wants to use his role with the pension investment board to scrutinize the makeup of publicly held companies in the Commonwealth. Citing The Boston Club’s annual census of women directors, he noted that six years ago, ten percent of directors of the Globe 100 corporations were women; today 11.3 percent are women. “That’s not a lot of progress,” he observed, adding that the state with its proxy power can be more aggressive in pursuit of diversity within the framework of maximizing shareholder value. [Full disclosure: I serve on The Boston Club’s Corporate Board Committee.]

Mindful of the lack of faith in government, Grossman is working to put the state’s “checkbook” on line so we can all see what the government is spending its money on, the purposes of the expenditures, the vendors with whom it is doing business – in short, what’s going out and what’s coming in.

If Grossman succeeds in implementing his vision for the Treasurer’s office, he may well emerge as a leading candidate to succeed Deval Patrick as Governor, an office for which he ran unsuccessfully in 2002.

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

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Setti Warren leaps into the U.S. Senate race

Newton Mayor Setti Warren announced yesterday he was running for Scott Brown’s seat in the U.S. Senate. If you look at his video announcement , he comes across as just the kind of person who should represent the Commonwealth in D.C. He certainly reflects more of Ted Kennedy’s values than does Scott Brown. And, if you compare Warren to the early Ted Kennedy, before he became the Senator we love to lionize, Setti is smoother (in a positive sense), more thoughtful, more articulate and more poised.

The problem is that he has only been mayor for 16 months. While he’s done a good job in terms of making the Mayor’s office more accessible and crafting a responsible budget in tough times, the plain truth is that the city still needs him to do the job he was elected to do and that he pledged to do. He’s letting some people down by making this run, and they have told him so. And it’s not just that he’d be leaving if elected. He shouldn’t be taking the time away from the city to make the run. As Cong. Barney Frank said of the idea a couple of weeks ago, “If it was the last year of the term it would be different.”

So why would he do it? From Setti’s career perspective, he has nothing to lose. He takes a page from the Obama book that argued it’s easier to run for higher office when you have less of a record to defend. If he runs and wins, then Massachusetts has a more enlightened voice in the Senate, and the Democrats get a needed vote at the national level. If he runs and loses, he ticks off some Newtonites for taking the time to make the run, but raises his statewide visibility. If there is an Obama II and if John Kerry becomes Secretary of State, Setti is well positioned to become the leading candidate to replace Kerry, for whom he used to work.

Sure, everyone says Scott Brown can’t be beaten. He is the most popular politician in Massachusetts and has a ton of money in the bank. But his voting record has been too cute by half, voting, we are told, over 85 percent with the Republican leadership and sometimes voting in opposition to the people of Massachusetts (unemployment benefits extension is just one issue that comes to mind). He voted against Head Start and Pell Grants. He voted for health reform as a state senator and says he now opposes the national legislation as a U.S. Senator. Last week’s fiasco when Brown asserted he had seen the Osama bin Laden death photos (when millions of people already knew they were internet fakes) made him look like a fool. When he tried to cover by saying he had seen them in a briefing and that wasn’t true, he looked like a liar.

Despite his high popularity and lavish war chest, Scott Brown’s election in 2010 may have been a fluke. Setti Warren may be banking on that. And though relatively few people across the state know who the heck he is, no one with greater credibility has come forward. Think Clinton over George H.W. Bush, Carter over Ford. More to the point, think Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses in 2008.

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

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Inflation not a worry for the next couple of years

Dick Syron and John LaWare were affable enough heads of the Boston-based regional operation of the Federal Reserve System. But, when they were out in the community, they seemed to speak only with other businessmen and in highly selective institutional settings. Cathy Minehan did somewhat better. But the current president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Eric Rosengren, is a really effective communicator. And he seems to enjoy taking his economic analyses and projections, complete with Power Point, across the local landscape, explaining himself in down-to-earth language we can all understand.

Recently he’s been doing his dog-and-pony show around the region, earlier this week at a meeting of the New England Council. His goal is to answer the question of how monetary policy should be used to respond to dramatic price increases, especially when, as recently, food and fuel costs seem to be heading off the charts.

(I got a bag of red grapes home from the store to discover it cost $9. But food costs are a relatively small part of American economy. Imagine living in India or China, where food costs are so much larger a part of the national economy!)

Rosengren says the Fed shouldn’t do anything at this time. The causes of the spikes are not a function of monetary policy. Middle East instability affects the oil price. Troubles in Japan disrupted the global supply chain. Weather extremes, such as those in Russia and Australia, affected the global harvest. When you take food and energy volatility out of the formula for measuring inflation, the core inflation rate has really been pretty steady at a bit more than one percent. He doesn’t expect to see more than two percent over the next couple of years.
Meanwhile, he said, if the Fed were to raise rates in response to higher food and energy prices, it would put a damper on the economy and unacceptably slow our recovery. And that wouldn’t do anything to solve Middle East instability, weather affects on the harvest, or logistical disruption in Japan.  Thursday, almost on cue, commodity prices—notably oil and food-- fell, apparently sparked by fears of the over-heating market.

An interesting sidebar is a difference of opinion brewing between Congressman Barney Frank, ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee, and Rosengren. Frank has proposed legislation that would bar regional Federal Reserve Bank heads from voting with the Federal Reserve Board on whether or not to move interest rates in one direction or another.

Frank apparently believes that, in general, the regional heads are too close to the local businesses who voted them in and they’re too partisan and parochial. There’s evidence that this is what happens in other parts of the country.

Rosengren says the board is driven by data not politics and that local input is highly desirable. We’ve all benefited from a central bank that is not partisan, he added. This seems true for Rosengren. My question is: how do the other regional heads behave? I certainly want to hear more about this debate.

In the meanwhile, it’s good to have a Fed leader willing to speak to the whole community… and in English.

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

Thursday, May 5, 2011

State Department to Editorialists: Africa Is Not a Country

“Press coverage of Africa is essential, good and insufficient,” Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson told a group of editorialists from the National Conference of Editorial Writers Monday in Washington. The head of the Bureau of African Affairs called for journalists to make sharper distinctions among the 53 states that make up the continent, 48 of which are Sub-Saharan.

There’s progress on the continent, he averred, urging writers not to focus just on stories of death and destruction, wars and famine. Africa comprises not just authoritarian regimes but many with good governance.

There is a democratic spring across the continent. There were just three democracies in the 1990’s. Today, some 20 sub-Saharan African nations are on their way to stable democracies. The United States has been actively involved in many of the 15-16 nations planning elections this year. Most notably, it has been helping Sudan bring about a successful referendum and transition to an independent state in the southern part of that country as of July 9.

The United States isn’t alone in seeing Africa – with its enormous mineral resources and pressing human needs - as central to its interests. China has come in in a big way. It has made clear its overriding interest is to extract oil and other minerals to support its own burgeoning economic development. And many African states have fallen under its sway. A byproduct of this is China’s attempt to woo Africa away from the influence of American media.

Unlike past administrations , we’re now told that United States Africa policy places Africa not at the periphery but at the center of our international interests. That policy has five “central pillars.

• Strengthening democracy and good governance.

• Promoting economic reform and sustaining economic development

• Dealing with enormous health challenges (HIV, malaria and tuberculosis) and food crises

• Working to prevent, mitigate and resolve crises in the Sudan, Ivory Coast, Guinea-Conakry

• Addressing global issues affecting Africa like terrorism and money-laundering - plus climate change, employment, and economic needs

Despite these generally applicable themes, remember, Africa is not a country. Differences among countries are real.

Take climate change, for example. The snow caps in Tanzania will be gone by the end of the decade. There is diminishing water in Lake Victoria. Snow is gone from Mt. Kenya., and some of the great rivers, needed to drive turbines in Kenya, are not flowing.

Africa has ten percent of the world’s population but 60 percent of AIDS cases, South Africa having the largest number.

The State Department’s Feed the Future program is a principal tool for creating sustainable agriculture, where the problems are pretty basic: seeds, fertilizer, water management and inefficient distribution system. Africa, says Carson, is capable not only of ending hunger at the family level but beginning to export as well. He looks to Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo for vigorous movement to self-sufficiency.

The bottom line: the media should look at Africa with as discerning an eye as we currently do in Asia, which itself was once considered a largely undifferentiated whole . Thirty-seven years in the Foreign Service, most of them spent in different Africa countries, combine to make Johnnie Carson the consummate professional and one who can articulate what such a discerning eye can see in analyzing the multiplicity of peoples, problems and promise on the African continent, at the center of our international interests.

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

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

American opinion in line with Obama administration message on bin Laden

A fresh Washington Post/Pew Research Center poll shows that while Americans feel really good about the demise of Osama bin Laden, few think we’re home free when it comes to the threat of terrorism. Seven in ten believe the world is more secure, but a scant five percent think that terrorism is no longer a danger. And that mirrors what the Obama Administration is saying.

Both the President and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, after expressing prayers for the families of the victims of 9/11 and praise for the courage of our military, intelligence experts and diplomatic officials on the front lines, warn that the death of Bin Laden doesn’t end the fight against Al Qaeda. Making her first public statement at the State Department yesterday, Clinton looked tired but together. She was strong but very measured in predicting the future.

The message to those who would do harm around the world: “you can’t wait us out; you can’t defeat us.” Clinton restated that the administration. As if speaking to reassure those people reflected in the Post/Pew poll, she said, “The fight continues, and we will never waver…..This is America. We rise to the challenge, we persevere and we get the job done.”

In making her public statement yesterday, Clinton took no questions. But afterwards, speaking informally with a small group of editorialists from the National Conference of Editorial Writers, she said, “Our goal is to shape the meaning and create the message.” They’re doing a good job at that.

She restated United States commitment to a “partnership” with Pakistan. As if to underline one of the reasons for that partnership, she reminded us that bin Laden had ordered the killing of many Pakistani men, women and children. Obviously, we still need the Pakistanis, however duplicitous and undependable, in meeting the challenge in Afghanistan, but Clinton wouldn’t be drawn into criticism of them. She avoided the concerns about Pakistani duplicity raised, for example, in Foreign Policy about “the Pakistani government’s web of deceit.”

A corollary message has to do with money. As the strategy in Afghanistan shifts from military to foreign aid as a tool for strengthening international security, we have to support the effort. The State Department budget has been cut by $8 billion, which otherwise would go for diplomatic and development work, conflict prevention and resolution, improving health and hunger and supporting American businesses in far-flung areas of the world. Economic development is an important arrow in the quiver of tools to fight terrorism.

Foreign aid as a concept gets little support among the American people. If asked about how much of the federal budget goes for foreign aid, a majority assume about 20-25 percent. Asked how much they think it should get, they say, oh, around 10 percent. In fact, it get just one percent of the federal budget.

If, indeed, people around the world look to America for its values and strength, then we need to view these kinds of diplomatic, economic and health initiatives as enduring necessities in the ongoing fight against terrorism.

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