Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The troubling politics of "Avatar"

by Bruce Fisher

How long can we afford the myth of native peoples beating back capitalism?

In the coming weeks, indigenous peoples the world over will put on their 3-D glasses and rejoice in the film Avatar, a story of third world triumph over rapacious, militarized, white male capitalism. And we here in the evil West will rejoice right along with them, while our Chinese and Russian friends scratch their heads and wonder if we’ve all lost our minds.

Avatar is the new $230 million triumph of computer-generated filmmaking by director James Cameron. It is a gorgeous piece of work that owes much to science fiction novelist Ursula K. LeGuin and to her anthropologist father, Albert Kroeber. It is the purest cinematic statement of the Vietnam protest generation’s politics since Dances With Wolves, which had the virtue of verisimilitude, in that the Lakota lost their war in the movie as in real life. By contrast, the Navi of Avatar enjoy the help of the creatures of sky and land, and their own prowess as archers and guerillas—and in Avatar, the sleek, dark-hued tribesmen win.

Audiences at the two showings I attended applauded the victorious natives of this film. I wanted to survey my fellow movie-goers: Why, in their opinion, did they think that the historical Native American, Aboriginal Australian and New Zealander, East-, West-, Central-, North- and South African kinsmen of the Navi not win, too? Were not all of them also handsome, lithe, arrow-shooting communicants with the fabulous flora and fauna of their pristine native realms? Did they not all also chant, wear paint, and dwell in various vocabularies of panentheism?

It is tempting to think only of Yoda and the Force as you watch this film, rather than to think about politics and history. But for a generation, for several generations actually, ever since historical peoples lost their desperate fights against the callous, mechanized despoiling forces of militarized commerce, some of America’s leading story-tellers have gotten us dreaming of the virtuous primitives winning. What if, we have wondered, what if the Indians won?

Culture and conflict

We keep telling ourselves this story, but never so lushly as in Avatar, whose message comes at a time of great political flux for the West. We in the West may soon lose our leading role in the world. What we do in our popular culture, I think, influences our politics—reflects our politics but also shapes it. Analysts like Richard Janszen of think that American military power is what keeps America relevant, and that that’s why Obama is correct (and compelled) to invest troops and treasure in Afghanistan. The military and geopolitical analyst Robert Kaplan, in his Empire Wilderness, describes the growing gap between the self-indulgent elite consumers of the financialized, movie-making, military-loathing America and the working-class kid-soldiers who get sent around the world to keep our dollar from being replaced by the yuan. Our elite Boomer ethos—that America is wrong, that machines are bad, that the Bad Dad who made us go to Vietnam is who America is—gives us cultural expressions like Avatar that sell massively in theaters and video-game consoles alike and inculcate a species of self-loathing. If stories of heroes are the stuff that keeps cultures going, what we are devouring is another story of a hero who is heroic only in rejecting who we are.

This sort of thinking is distinctive to the post-colonialists of the West. Today’s active colonial powers will have none of that thinking. The Russian state today crushes Chechnya, disrupts Georgia, arms Abkhazia, props up Ossetia, and messes around in Ukraine just as Stalin and Lenin and their predecessor autocrats did, acting the way that a great continental empire acts, and the Russian masses, apparently, believe that that’s the right way to go. We in the West shudder, as the great Cold War novelist John LeCarre did in his 1996 book Our Game, which is about the brave souls in a small nation of the North Caucasus who fight the heroic but doomed fight against Great Russia. But that is not how the popular Russian imagination goes: At best, the Chechens and the Ingush are mafiosi; at worst, terrorists; and the rest of the hundred or more troublesome ethnic minorities in Russia lack, for the Russians, the virtue that Westerners ascribe to them.

Similarly, the dominant Chinese culture has no room for virtuous natives, either. There is broad majority Chinese belief that the central government is correct to continue to crush Tibetans and Uighurs, to vilify the Dalai Lama, and to prosecute minority groups rather than afford them even a taste of self-determination.

Other big and up-and-coming world powers also eschew the myth of the noble savage. Brazilians high and low are unsentimental about Amazon indigenes. Educated Mexicans of my acquaintance, even two socialist friends who help direct human rights efforts there, think of the various Indian groups as poor peasants, not as savants, not as stewards of precious natural treasures, not as worthies to be consulted.

Choosing our stories

Parsing the politics of Avatar, we start with this distinct Vietnam-era sensibility, whose conclusion was that Americans, like the Germans, are villains of history. That’s why it makes sense that in the Avatar story, the crippled soldier, the American Everyman, is restored to manhood—to computer-enhanced manhood, at that —only after he crosses over. He makes the full transition: He becomes the noblest of the noble savages, becoming tall and lithe and dark-skinned, and leaves behind the body of a mere invader, the body whose back the old system literally broke. We already knew that the mystic natives were good and the invaders bad. Now we know that the hero is the one who goes native, more literally than even just by converting in dress, manners, and language. The teens and young adults who will help this $230 million production make zillions more were raised on this message, and will, pretty much, believe this lesson.

Sadly, because in real life the natives don’t win, there is no transformation awaiting today’s young would-be heroes. They are bound to be disappointed. Capitalism and its brutal soldiers and its tree-crunching machines will win, don’t you think? Yet we will keep buying the story Avatar tells, especially if capitalism continues to do such an excellent job of producing them—a job that includes going worldwide to assemble the picture-making and story-telling talent that made this compelling movie. For two-and-a-half hours, we get to imagine, most colorfully, that all that we are can be bested by all that we crushed to get here.

But the Avatar myth does not prepare us for what may be coming next for America—a future in which we are no longer the powerful Bad Dad. What happens when we are no longer rich enough and powerful enough to afford the myths of Yoda, Fern Gully, Dances With Wolves, and Avatar? What new myths will our elite image-makers put forth for our consumption and to shape our political consciousness?

The power to decide what those stories should be won’t be in Vietnam-protesting, father-bashing Boomer hands for too much longer. The mystery is whether the internet world, with its widely distributed content-making, will produce a new mythology that is as libertarian and anti-authoritarian as its driving minds are, or whether the practicalities of voracious capitalism—you know, the Bad Dads who will still run the resource-mining corporations, and who will control finance—will still force capitalism to remain resource-destroying, rapacious, polluting and altogether icky about things like native rights.

My bet is that clever geeks will keep creating Boomer-ethos images so long as they keep selling. And then the stories will abruptly change as soon as the money guys say so. If the money guys (maybe Chinese money guys) become convinced that anti-capitalist, anti-white-male stories will maximize profits and help them politically, then, there’ll be more stories like Avatar. As Sarah Palin would say, “You betcha!” Pass the popcorn.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Teapot, Boiling

by Bruce Fisher

Angst over jobs, local taxes, race, and terror could turn us red in 2010

The Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority, or ECFSA, otherwise known as the Control Board, will soon be revealed as either a complete political fraud or as the stern, sane fiscal watchdog that will keep at least some local politicians honest. If the ECFSA goes “hard” again, chances are that Chris Collins’s candidacy for governor is dead. If the ECFSA stays “soft,” then one may wonder why taxpayers should fund a state-created entity that issues scary memos but does nothing.

The last scary memo came on October 13. In its seven pages, the ECFSA warned of a $172.3 million budget gap. It pointed to the end of the federal government’s bailout money. It criticized the bizarre and baseless assertions by the county executive that he can, all by himself, divert sales tax receipts from towns to his own exchequer. Finally, the ECFSA warned of undisclosed huge property tax increases ahead, starting in 2011.

And then? Nothing. The ECFSA decided to take a break for the Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Eid, and Advent holidays, and maybe for Christmas and Kwanzaa too.

“Only the receipt of approximately $76 million in [federal] stimulus funds has allowed the county to produce balanced budgets for 2009 and 2010,” the ECFSA wrote in October. And only a supine, confused, listless, and clueless Erie County Legislature and Erie County Democratic Party has allowed all the federal money to be swallowed up in budgets that still cut funding for libraries, cultural groups, parks, health clinics, and the nutrition program for young mothers. This same legislative body, whose 12-member Democratic majority was unable to muster 10 votes to override the county executive’s veto of a long-overdue countywide land-use planning board, is about to elevate to its chairmanship a legislator who has trouble filing accurate campaign finance disclosure reports. This is the same body that meandered wordlessly as the executive ripped up the intermunicipal agreement that has allowed the Olmsted Conservancy to manage Buffalo’s major parks after Buffalo ran out of money in 2004.

If the ECFSA remains dominated and directed by the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, chances are good-to-excellent that the looming fiscal problems of 2011 will remain out there, looming, with only a hand-wringer here and there wondering what will be cut next. The cultural community refused to rally around a 2007 plan for creating a dedicated fund for cultural organizations. As predicted, that funding mechanism has been politicized, and now its budget has been reduced by more than 20 percent notwithstanding the demonstrated economic impact of steady public support for the arts. Libraries have been cut by 10 percent, and the so-called Library Protection Act has thus been revealed as toothless.

Traditional politics, then, is failing us. One doubts that a county executive who turns away federal grants for social-service programs will choose to raise property tax rates in a political environment where there is no opposition—an environment that features Democrats who can’t or won’t forge a coalition of cultural leaders, social workers, library fans, and parks partisans to fight back. If even the people whose interests are being trashed won’t rise up, it’s hard to imagine the ECFSA roaring back to life.

Thus we’ve just been given a preview of the next several years of political, fiscal, and community life in the Rust Belt—in which angry, anti-government rhetoric will get much, much angrier as the population and tax bases shrink, in which political paralysis will prevent bold support even for popular public amenities, and in which federal bailout money (if it ever comes again) simply disappears unacknowledged. Unaddressed, the problems will grow worse, the alienation will continue, and the pot will boil hotter and hotter.

This is how Barack Obama loses the blue states in 2010.
What bad will look like

After the midterm election in 2010, President Barack Obama could face a very hostile Congress, even a new Republican majority in the House. Reliably progressive Congressional districts in Long Island, Westchester County, and even in Erie County could swing Republican. “White voters are deserting [Obama] in droves,” a senior Democratic strategist told me last week. “Next year could be a disaster. A disaster.”

And that’s just Congressional politics in the midterm election. It has often been the case that a popular new president gets kicked hard in the election the year after he is first inaugurated. What’s new and different this time around is how local fiscal issues, and state budget problems, may have created a systemic crisis.

Thanks to the federal stimulus money, the last fiscal year wasn’t all that tough on state and local governments. But 2010 could be very very tough, and 2011 could be a screaming nightmare. Here’s the list of woes: First, in New York State anyway, whatever new stimulus money arrives won’t help pay the Medicaid bills that the first round of stimulus money paid, so county property taxes will have to rise. Second, the bill for local public employee pensions is coming due in 2011, because the state pension fund’s bubble popped when the Wall Street bubble popped. Third, economic activity has not been so great (unemployment is up, sales are down), so sales tax receipts are down. Fourth, because of continued suburban sprawl, there is a huge oversupply of houses all over Upstate New York, which means that the sale prices of real property won’t continue to grow, and could start shrinking—and what that means is, simply, that the property tax won’t yield as much revenue as governments need in order to fund all the services property taxpayers demand.

The problem will be most acute in suburban towns. State aid to school districts will be cut, which will leave suburban school budgets in the hands of voters who have, increasingly, rejected school-tax increases. Town property taxes will go up even as the long-term trends for first-ring suburbs, which is where the oldest of the old taxpayers live, get poorer. There is good reason to believe that, by 2020, the 1,200-square-foot 1950s Cape Cods of Tonawanda, Cheektowaga, West Seneca, and Hamburg will house either desperately poor people or nobody at all. As Buffalo and other old cities have found, abandoned houses don’t yield much tax revenue. And it is a very good bet that the chamber of commerce rhetoric about taxes, plus the downsizer rhetoric about taxes, and the Tea Party rhetoric about taxes, will never ever address the root cause of the problem: namely, the vast and increasing oversupply of houses in a part of the country whose population is not growing.

Thus the finance and real-estate elites who cause the problem will have succeeded in making themselves richer, but homeowners will be told, as they already are, that their tax woes are somebody else’s doing.
What worse could look like

The distinguished Columbia University historian Robert O. Paxton published The Anatomy of Fascism before Sarah Palin was elected governor of Alaska at the height of the George W. Bush political ascendancy. Her anti-elitism was and remains her brand. To a greater extent than was ever the case when W. was president, our media make more and more room for crude expressions of anti-elitism that sound and feel like the visceral anger that found political expression in the 1930s in Europe. Barack Obama is the specific target of a much more intense scorn, even rage, than any of the negativity hurled by condescending intellectuals against W.

At town hall meetings and Tea Party demonstrations, our new president is blamed for the subprime mortgage crisis, the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the stock market collapse of 2008, and all the other stuff that occurred before he took office in January 2009, but blamed in language that has little to do with the specific Treasury and Federal Reserve programs of which he is at most a part-author, a follow-on author. Instead, the language is about group grievance: “What is happening to our America?” has been sobbed and shouted out by folks whose general feelings of victimhood are widespread—as widespread as the national housing crisis.

Liberals have correctly pointed out the inherent racism of homemade pictures of Obama as a witch doctor. But liberals are dreaming if they believe that Tea Party sentiment is confined to the uneducated lower-middle-class whose bungalows are in foreclosure.

Reading Paxton’s book about the 1920s and 1930s in civilized Europe ought to give everybody shivers. He enumerates the “mobilizing passions” that led lots of previously sane people to seek a heroic game-changer who would come in and sweep away the usual politics. These include “a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions,” “the belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external,” “dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict and alien influences.” Finally, Paxton writes of “the need for authority by natural leaders (always male), culminating in a national chief who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s destiny.”

The only part of that picture that doesn’t fit is the gender bit. The attraction of, and revulsion to, Sarah Palin is all about un-intellectual, non-rational stuff. It’s about fear. The fear is grounded in anxiety about money, and I see that anxiety growing, not shrinking.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The separation fantasy

Dimwitted Disunity
by Bruce Fisher

Now it's Upstate right-wingers who want to split New York
Before Hong Kong became a part of China again, it was a city-state that enjoyed fabulous prosperity, creativity, and freedom. In the good old days, many a resident of New York City fantasized about how sweet the liberation would be if only Gotham could shed the dead weight of its Upstate country cousins. The late writer Norman Mailer ran a campaign for mayor premised on seceding from New York State; he said that, after the City went solo, the rest of the state could call itself Buffalo for all he cared.

These days, it’s the country cousins who are talking secession. Earlier this year, suburban Rochester State Senator Joseph Robach introduced legislation to make Upstate New York independent, so that it could become the 51st state. Suburban Buffalo State Senator Michael Ranzenhofer is a co-sponsor of this bill. So is suburban State Senator Dale Volker.

I will save the insane details of their bill for last, because it’s the sentiment that matters—the same sentiment we encounter in the Unshackle Upstate campaign, which has been endorsed by a bunch of chambers of commerce in our part of New York. These organizations endorse a legal and economic separation from the part of our state where much of the economic power resides, namely, in five or so lower Hudson Valley counties plus New York City and Long Island.

To paraphrase Woody Allen in the movie Annie Hall, “Don’t you see? The rest of New York State looks upon New York City like we’re left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers. I think of us that way sometimes and I live here.”

Economic fantasies
New York City folks have a basis for the gripe that Upstate is more like a blood-sucking wood-tick than a good partner.

The mayor’s budget office in New York City estimated a few years ago that Upstate gets $11 billion more than it puts into the state till in Albany. More recent work at the Center for Economic and Policy Studies shows that Erie County gets—in addition to the massive $75+ million federal handout that allowed the current county government to balance its budget—over $1 billion more in state spending than is produced here in state revenue. Manhattan Island alone accounts for over 25 percent of all state tax revenue; the New York metro area accounts for 75 percent of the money Albany uses to support education, Medicaid, welfare, the state police, the 46-campus SUNY system, and the rest of what state government does.

But if Robach, Ranzenhofer, Volker, and the other sponsors of the Secession bill are serious (which, of course, they’re not), we should do an economic impact study of what Upstate would look like without all the handouts New York gives us.

Maybe we’d look like Ohio. Ohio is a state without the burden of the Taylor Law, which is the historic legislation that allows public employees the bargaining power and benefits that the Unshackle Upstate campaign so vigorously decries. Would being like Ohio create a great economic renaissance in Upstate?

Well, the evidence is mixed. According to a survey by the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, employment and housing values are suffering badly in our current national economic miasma. A measure of “gross metropolitan product” is illuminating. In Akron, GMP is down 7.6 percent and housing values have declined 0.7 percent in the past year. In Cincinnati, GMP shrunk 6.3 percent, but housing values rose a fraction, up 0.4 percent. In Cleveland, GMP fell 8.5 percent and housing lost 0.9 percent. In Dayton, the drop was 6.9 percent and housing lost 0.6 percent.

In Buffalo and Rochester, our recession-time GMP got worse—shrinking 4.1 percent and 5.0 percent, respectively—but our housing values rose 3.7 percent and 3.1 percent. We look better in both measures than Ohio.

Overall population and employment trends in both Ohio and Upstate are similar, which is why observers point to deindustrialization and suburban sprawl as common problems in both areas. But has a public-employee rights package in Upstate made the recession here worse? The numbers clearly say that the recession is hitting harder in the state without the Taylor Law than it is here.

SUNY without Downstate?
This week, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and others once again asked New York State government to invest many, many hundreds of millions of new dollars in the UB 2020 expansion and development plan. The Partnership is the leading lobbyist against the Taylor Law, and against progressivity in the state income tax, and regularly decries Albany’s spending.

At its Monday event unveiling the 2010 Regional Agenda, the Partnership laid out a detailed wish-list, topped by its ask for $104 million in state funds for the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. The Partnership reasserted its ask for the UB 2020 plan, which is currently sketched in as about $2.5 billion over the next 10 years.

All that money will have to come from somewhere. Somewhere else, actually. What the leading local business advocacy group is asking for is for a very large annual increment of new state spending—over $100 million per year over and above the current state input, which is already over $1 billion more than the state collects in revenue here. In fact, depending where precisely one draws the line on the map, more than 30 of the SUNY campuses are outside of the Hudson Valley-NYC-Long Island area that produces 75 percent of New York State tax revenue—so SUNY is an Upstate benefit whose bills are paid Downstate.

That’s how it is in a state where one city has become a giant. That’s how it is in Illinois, where the split is between the gigantic Chicago metro of about eight million people, and the rest of the state’s four million or so. Resentment of giant Detroit is rampant in small-town and mid-size urban Michigan. Pennsylvania has a huge pole of wealth and population called Philadelphia, a smaller one called Pittsburgh, and in between, as James Carville famously said, is Alabama. Resentment of the rich, the large and the sophisticated is an old strand in the populist chord, here and elsewhere—but especially here.

That’s why we get stupid political posturing like the legislation sponsored by Robach, Ranzenhofer, Volker, and a couple of others from Upstate. These people actually put forward a bill for the purpose of making the gesture of solidarity with the notion that we are virtuous yeomen up here in the pure country air of Upstate. While Manhattanites roll their eyes at once more hearing the whining from our business elite, our legislators put forward a bill that would allow individual counties to opt out of remaining in New York State—thus confirming every thought that New Yorkers have about us, including that we are so dim-witted that we can’t even figure out that we’d all have to want to leave together rather than piecemeal if we were to give them their wish and get out of their wallets.

I hope we do get a grand new UB 2020. I hope we get the best medical talent and the best Buffalo State College investments that the New York metro area can buy us. We should all endorse the wish-list of the 2010 Regional Plan. And then we should get out our checkbooks, and politely, without further whining, pay our taxes, because all this good stuff will come to us from taxpayers, of whom, in the still-united New York, we here number but few.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Killing the majority?

Left and Right Converging

Published on Artvoice Blog
November 20, 2009

Filed under: News, Presidential Politics — Tags: 2010 elections, Bailout, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Henry Paulson, Levy Intitute, stimulus, Tea Party, Timothy Geithner — bruce @ 5:08 pm

AV columnist Bruce Fisher sends in this reflection on How Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s bad economics could turn Blue states Red in 2010:

Jim Hightower, the former Texas politician and veteran political wit, was fond of excoriating political moderates as he was of skewering Republicans. “Ain’t nothin’ in the middle of the road but yellow lines and dead armadillos,” he’d say. In the Blue states, the curious phenomenon of middle-of-the-road economic policy in 2009 may turn politics Red in 2010. That’s because trillions of American tax dollars spent on “stimulus” spending have gone into bailing out banks rather than into buying America any new jobs. And the political effect is terrible for Congressional Democrats, who are getting angrier and angrier, just like their constituents. By the time of the next Congressional elections in 2010, the political impact of the economic policy decisions of George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s Treasury Secretaries, Henry Paulson and Timothy Geithner, could destroy Obama’s majority support in Congress.
Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner

A group of non-mainstream economists has been warning about the wrong-headedness of the Bush-Obama approach to financial stabilization. At the recent international conference of Post Keynesians held at Buffalo State College, the consensus was pretty clear that both the Bush and Obama administrations gave America a policy that will do nothing to prevent the financial instability that gave us the financial collapse and the resulting recession.

Current policy, according to L. Randall Wray and Eric Tymoigne of the Levy Institute, “serves to preserve the interests of big financial companies rather than to implement government programs that would directly sustain employment and restore state finances.”

In one of those rare papers that non-specialists can read, these economists don’t go anywhere near the political question of why it is that first the Bush Treasury and then the Obama Treasury flushed trillions of US taxpayer dollars into propping up banks that are “too big to fail” while doing nothing about the crushing burden of household debt—and still leaving at least 26 million people without a steady full-time job. Unfortunately, Obama’s economic advisory crew is led by people whose views are undistinguishable from Bush’s—the very people who have personally profited from what historian Kevin Phillips calls “the financialization of the American economy.” The Post Keynesians who gathered in Buffalo warned that the incentives for money-manager capitalism have become far, far lucrative than for industrial capitalism, evidenced by the far higher level of profits scored by financial firms than by industrial firms.

The astounding surge of influence of the financial world has been a bipartisan phenomenon. Former President Bill Clinton’s own Treasury Secretary, Larry Summers, was one of the architects (if deconstruction can be called architecture) of the changes in financial regulation that had been in place since the New Deal. Republicans and Democrats alike gleefully went along with all of that and more, raising money from Wall Street hand over fist. They all sang from the same “free market” hymnbook. Markets were supposed to be self-correcting. Indeed, the Republicans who are called “free-market fundamentalists,” like Congressman Ron Paul and Senator Richard Shelby, criticized the Paulson and Geithner bank-bailout policies by making at has least one point in common with the Post Keynesians: They all say that there should be no such thing as a bank or an insurance company that is “too big to fail.”

This past week, Senator Shelby rose in opposition to Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd’s legislation that, Shelby says, “significantly expands the federal government’s ability to bail out not only banks, but any large, politically connected company.” The Post Keynesians make the same point.

Thus President Obama is facing a brewing rebellion on the Left as well as the one that has been hammering him from the Right. His bailout of the banks massively swelled the federal deficit without providing a public-works program that resulted in a surge of hiring. As the Christmastime consumer spending-frenzy approaches, there is still double-digit unemployment almost everywhere and no relief in sight. The Congressional Black Caucus is in open rebellion at the Tim Geithner-Larry Summers “brain trust” that still apparently believes that macro-measures of economic output are a perfectly adequate gauge of economic recovery, even while middle-class and working-class household stress is boiling over.

Even worse, the economic pain in 2010 will hit home even harder. The Pew Center on the States reports that most state governments are so strapped for cash that tax increases, layoffs and service cutbacks loom. Brookings Institution economists have issued a dire warning that local governments everywhere will be following suit.

Thus it’s no surprise that Congressional sentiment in favor of a new round of “stimulus” spending seems to be growing—because folks at home, from governors and mayors to households and shopkeepers, are all asking “Where’s my bailout?” Here’s the political problem: the apologists for the “free market” will be happy to bash the proposed financial reforms the same way they’ve bashed the stimulus spending and the healthcare reform—as big-government programs that don’t, haven’t and won’t deliver benefits to the average family. The Levy Institute economists of the Post Keynesian school warn that the free-marketeers, whether they worked for Bush, for Obama, for Ron Paul or Richard Shelby, are dangerously wrong. The average family would benefit tremendously from the policies prescribed by Tymoigne and Wray, policies that include a permanent public-works jobs program at a living wage, plus household debt-forgiveness, plus “a return toward term lending by regulated financial institutions that hold loans and a restoration of incentives to engage in proper underwriting.” Tymoigne and Wray argue that the only way to fix the lending institutions is to give working people a chance to start paying their mortgage payments and their credit-card bills.

That’s sober advice that also happens to have a certain genius about it as political advice, though as non-politicians, they never say as much. Sadly, the political rhetoric of 2010 will likely be dominated by Republicans who will bash the Bush-Obama bank bailouts and also bash the massive deficits that those bailouts caused.

As non-Keynesian and Post-Keynesian economists alike know, though, the most dangerous thing in the world would be to try to enact aggressive anti-deficit measures because of this thing called demand. If deficit hawks get elected in 2010, and succeed in restricting the actually stimulative “stimulus” spending, then unemployment could get much, much worse, and the downward spiral toward the Depression could get going faster than it could be stopped.

So here’s the punchline: If Obama sticks with Bush economic policies, and if his Senate allies like Connecticut’s Chris Dodd push financial non-reforms that institutionalize “too big to fail” for Wall Street’s irresponsible giant firms, then hunger and hurt in the heartland will tip the Blue states toward Red.

There’s already a tax revolt on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley in New York State, and a shrill anti-government movement in the permanently dependent, permanently job-losing Buffalo area. Ohio voters just this month reversed themselves with a vote to legalize casino gambling, which is always a sign that a depressed area has become a desperate area, as study after study has shown that casinos cause deadweight economic loss in addition to criminality and family woe. In Michigan, northern Ohio and elsewhere in the Great Lakes, other automobile-industry centers are already seeing red. Unemployment, housing foreclosures and overall economic stress make those areas prime targets of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s book-promotion tour, where she delivers her anti-government message to some seriously hurting folks.

The Bush and Obama teams delivered for the financial elites on Wall Street, whose bonuses this Christmas will still have them consuming lots of jewelry, high-end watches, designer clothing and imported luxury cars. Meanwhile, a recent Wall Street Journal report shows that sales of low- and moderately-priced items at shopping malls are still depressed. The Target-brand department stores, whose customers briefly became Democrats in 2008, expect lower-than-usual sales because their customers don’t have the money this year.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Where mom can walk, recession can end

Your Mom, Walking
by Bruce Fisher

How attention to street detail makes or spoils the region

The American cities that are suffering worst in this recession are the ones whose economies are tied closely to General Motors and Ford and their supply chains. A recent survey by the Brookings Institution finds that five of the 21 large metros in the Great Lakes region—Dayton, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Toledo, and Youngstown—rank among the 20 weakest metro economies in the country. Akron, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and a couple of other car-towns aren’t quite as badly off, but that’s rather like saying that someone with swine flu isn’t as badly off as somebody with stage III lung cancer. Freshwater towns like Rochester and Pittsburgh, and to a lesser extent Buffalo, Syracuse, and Madison, are where housing hasn’t collapsed, where unemployment is up but not catastrophically so, and where there is something else other than car-making that undergirds the economy.

We all hope that the current downturn will be resolved soon, but what the economic analysts seem to have a hard time figuring out is whether there is something else, some other factor, that will shape a region’s fate. New research of a wholly different kind suggests that if a place is pleasant and easy to walk in, folks will tend to want to live there, and will find something new to do for a living there, if they possibly can.

New urbanists are hard at work advising real-estate investors to build walkable developments in the growing, sunny parts of America. Up here in the old North, where we not only made cars but shaped our entire lives around them, we face a rather stark test of the theory that walkability could mean community survivability. The test could be as simple as this: If your mom is 75 years old and wants to move to Florida, will she stay if she feels comfortable walking to the drug store, the bank and the branch library? Will she “age in place” if she can get herself to all the other non-supermarket places that make up a city shopping strip or a village center? If so, there is some evidence that, chances are, you and your clever and educated and discerning friends will want to live where Mom feels good about walking.

That means that the sidewalks need to be level and the street-crossing signals functional, and that the house she’s living in has been remodeled, if only a little, to accommodate her ever-more-limited range of motion.

These issues are gelling into an urgent question for Great Lakes metro areas because pretty much every snowy place has the same demographic fate between now and 2030: The population is going to get older, and it’s going to get smaller. So if policy-makers stand by and watch lots of new housing continue to get built, instead of older housing being maintained and retro-fitted, then the old stuff—especially in the old city centers and first-ring suburbs (where the older folks live) will be abandoned. Places with lots of abandonment tend to spiral downward faster. Places with lots of sprawl tend, in all the Great Lakes metro regions, tend to shrink overall. This shouldn’t be hard to figure out, but our state-level policy-makers to figure out, but they haven’t—even though Cassandra after Cassandra cries out a warning.

One of them is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which published a very troubling study in 2007 that shows just how unsuitable so many of old houses are for the elders who live in them. Prosaic details of everyday life—like the fact that most pre-1980s houses have only one bathroom, and that it tends to be on the second floor—become literally life-threatening situations. Keeping the homestead is hard when folks have to climb Mount Everest to wash their hands. But even after the remodeling gets done, and the $10,000 retro-fit of the old home allows Pop to avoid moving out to the Sunset Square Senior Ghetto, does he stand a chance negotiating the streets of home?
Rocky or smooth

A new look at the walkability of our urban, suburban, and village neighborhoods in Western New York was undertaken on an arrestingly simple premise: that it was time to test out whether the streets around here are safe for older, slower-moving folks and others, including people who move slowly because they tend to ride in baby carriages, or whether the risk from bad drivers, bad landlords, and bad concrete work make our community a bad bet.

Volunteers and staff from the Healthcare Foundation of Western and Central New York tested sidewalks, intersections, crosswalks, and streetscapes all over Erie County, from Williamsville to Riverside, from Orchard Park to Hertel Avenue, the Frederick Douglass Apartments, South Buffalo and a few other places. (See Walkability Results Report Final.pdf.)

The Tosh Collins Senior Center in South Buffalo is a comfy place, but the volunteers found that crossing the street to get there was a life-threatening experience. Crossing Abbott Road or Cazenovia Street near the park was also a big problem. The NFTA’s bus stop isn’t adequately lit, unleashed dogs roam the Olmsted Park there, and the sidewalk is all cracked. Yet this particular senior center is in an attractive setting, is very well used, and is a popular destination.

Allegedly human-friendly Williamsville Village between Union and Cayuga features a broken pedestrian crossing signal, no signal at all at an apartment building full of seniors, a 20-second crossing time that is fine for somebody 17 but perhaps a bit less than sane for persons even of the mellow vintage of your humble correspondent, much less his mom. Yet the other aspects of the community seem to be sticky enough to keep folks happy to be there.

Overall, though, Erie County is a very unwalkable place compared even to the other snowy towns that are experiencing population loss. UB geography professor Dr. Li Yin said in 2007 that the New York City borough of Queens, by contrast, was one of America’s highest-scoring communities on his “walkability index,” but that Buffalo in particular, especially in areas of high abandonment and bad sidewalk and curb maintenance, scores lowest. Lowest in walkability translates into least likely to work as a destination for investment, commerce, or new or revitalized housing.

When it comes to assessing local government, this is about as basic as it gets: Are the folks whose job it is to maintain the infrastructure making it work, or do you risk tripping on a busted-up sidewalk, getting run down at an unmarked crosswalk, or threatened by wannabe mobsters at an unlit bus stop? It is not hard to understand, then, what seems to be a demographic consequence of this: Population density, and economic viability, is falling in the places where it’s harder to walk.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

How Democratic wimpiness empowers local Palins

Taxes, Rants, & Tea
by Bruce Fisher

Poor Chris Collins. The current Erie County Executive is about to become Joel Giambra, the previous County Executive, and Ned Regan, the one who proposed raising county property taxes over 70%. That’s because the same fiscal circumstances that faced Erie County under Regan and Giambra are returning for 2011 under Collins—a huge growth in the cost of unfunded mandates, insufficient local revenue to cover those costs, and the unavoidable, distasteful task of telling taxpayers that the same choice that faced us before faces us again, a choice between gutting services and raising taxes.

But let’s reduce the emotional temperature by taking away the names, because it’s a structural problem, not a personality issue. Before Christmas, this community could once again see an ugly confrontation between a state-appointed fiscal oversight board and an elected county executive. The messaging will be bad for democracy—because once again, we’ll be told, the people whom we elected cannot be trusted to govern. Once again, we’ll be told that they cannot be trusted to collect the taxes, manage the services and serve as stewards of the community’s assets. Once again, we’ll be told that only “business” people can handle the people’s business.

We got a preview of this message last month, when the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority (ECFSA) issued its analysis of the County’s four-year fiscal plan. The ECFSA pointed out 8 flaws in the County Executive’s plan—including his assertion that he is going to cut the Erie County library system by 10%, unilaterally pull out of a sales tax-sharing agreement with the towns, and cut staff that do the work that Federal and State law require the county to do. The ECFSA report warns that County property taxes will have to go up at least 28%—and probably much, much more—but nowhere in the County Executive’s plan is the reality of a property tax addressed.

“Only the receipt of approximately $76 million in stimulus funds has allowed the county to produce balanced budgets for 2009 and 2010,” said the ECFSA report.

That report was issued on October 16th. But during the recent election, strangely, no campaigns were run on the issue of President Barack Obama’s $76 million gift running out, nor on the issue of the coming tax increase in Erie County. Nor were campaigns run on the inevitable choice that elected officials will have to make—the choice between keeping libraries, parks, cultural organizations and services to veterans, impoverished single mothers and at-risk children going, or just paying for mandated services, the jail and some roads.

Why the silence?

Balancing pain with gain
Think back to 1994. It was the mid-term Congressional election after Bill Clinton’s great failure of 1993. That was when, in his first year in office, the new President tried and failed to get a comprehensive healthcare reform bill passed. Worse, Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury and the Chairman of the Federal Reserve had convinced the President, and he in turn had convinced Congress, that the only way to head off the nightmare economics of huge deficits and job-killing inflation was to raise taxes. Clinton and Congress bit the bullet on taxes, but dropped the ball on healthcare.

Political disaster was the result of stifled reform. The voting middle class felt the tax pain but not the policy gain. With the help of then not-yet-Congressman Tom Reynolds and his campaign team’s “morphing” ads, in which individual members of Congress morphed into the image of the tax-raising president, the House of Representatives went Republican—and stayed Republican until 2006. The Democratic National Chairman at the time, David Wilhelm, complained to me at the time that Democrats who abandoned Clinton on healthcare were his biggest headache, because Democrats can’t win when they’re in a fearful crouch.

Democrats locally and across New York State certainly seem to be flexing their knees once again. Instead of running campaigns in defense of public services, and rallying constituencies that all demand public investment, they do a faint version of “me too” when the issue is taxes. Verifiable facts about how our economy gains from public investment go un-mentioned by Labor, by Democratic elected officials and by opinion leaders, while the anti-government, anti-spending rants of the Right are amplified unrebutted in the major media.

Item: the nose-counters New York State Department of Labor say that thousands of jobs have been created in the hospitality industry in Western New York over the past several years, which happens to be the time period over which major public investment went into arts organizations, architectural restoration, fisheries development and bi-national tourism development. There’s a measurable increase in the size of the hospitality-tourism-arts sector of the economy here. Yet none of this stuff is the stuff of campaigning, even as the County Executive cuts the arts budget and has zero plans for increasing investment in attractions.

Item: healthcare in the region, and specifically inside Buffalo, remains a huge employer and economic force. Of the more than 50 organizations testifying before a recent New York State Senate hearing on the state budget, the entities with the biggest requests for state help (i.e., tax dollars) were Kaleida Health, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Erie County Medical Center Corporation and SUNY at Buffalo—all of which survive principally on public money. Yet the consistent messaging in the news media, especially from the local business community, is that public spending somehow is injurious to the local economy.

Item: A review by the Buffalo State College Center for Economic and Policy Studies shows that public employment in Erie County contributes $3.5 billion of the $18.1 billion in wages paid here, about 19% of the total in 2008. Public employment is paid for with tax dollars, but not all those tax dollars that pay those public salaries are from here. Federal, state and most county workers are paid with imported money—so their wages are a net contribution to the economy here from someplace else! When was the last time you heard public unions host a forum of economists to discuss the impact of public employment on the local or regional economy? When have you heard a banker estimate how many mortgages are held by current or retired teachers, cops, social workers, college professors, sewer workers or firefighters—and what would happen to that bank were those borrowers to disappear?

Item: we read endlessly that a lobbying group in Albany has calculated that local taxes in New York State are 60 percent higher than the national average. Now read this: according to the Tax Foundation, taxpayers in New York State ship over $139 billion a year out of state to pay the bills for federal services in states represented by anti-tax Republicans. According to Citizens for Tax Justice, the total tax rate (measured as a share of income) paid by middle-class New Yorkers is almost the same as the total tax rate paid by the wealthiest New Yorkers. Yet we read again and again that the affluent of New York State are streaming for the exits. Why no clarification? Why no facts in rebuttal?

The cost of going rogue
Sarah Palin’s home state of Alaska receives billions of New York tax dollars in the form of permanent economic stimulus funds—for military bases, national parks, environmental cleanup and subsidies for the various extraction industries. Alaska is one of those “red” states that consistently votes Republican. Some clever political science undergraduate should do a term paper about the correlation between the decibel-level of the anti-tax rhetoric from a “red” state and the amount of our tax money that state gets.

Similarly, out here in Upstate New York, we hear “red” anti-tax rhetoric all day long on certain radio stations, and can read it daily in our daily press—notwithstanding the fact that over 75% of New York State revenue is collected in the New York City metro area, but that only 65% of New York State revenue is spent there. The rest of that dough sloshes over us, here, in the state’s flyover country.

Thus it was no surprise that way away up north in the 23rd Congressional District in the Adirondacks, the pattern holds. Folks in Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Hamilton, Herkimer, Jefferson, Lewis, Oswego, St. Lawrence and Warren Counties pay in $1.23 billion in state taxes but receive $1.86 billion in state disbursements. The $630 million extra that that area gets from Albany (i.e., more than 50% more than those folks pay in) comes from the New York metro area. Grateful to the big city, are they? Nope. The politics there was almost typical of areas that receive more than they give: the Sarah Palin candidate for Congress almost won.

Country music, dog-fighting, big-box churches, anti-intellectualism and anti-tax politics with thinly-veiled anti-Semitic code words all feel like imports from the “red” states, like our current County Executive, but sadly, they are well established in our northern cultural landscape. And sadly, despite the ancient northern tradition of flinty Yankee communitarianism—which gave us institutions like participatory democracy, libraries, forest preserves and other “commons” for the public good—these invasive species seem poised, at times, to overrun us.

Maybe the reality check provided by the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority, if it once again goes “hard” in December, will be enough to remind the community that we do indeed have a choice between the harsh anti-community rhetoric against taxes and the whimpering of appeasers. Maybe this time when the choice between paying for services and doing without them is put to the community, the community’s leading voices will stand up and start citing some of the facts—facts that reflect the measurable, proven local and regional economic benefit of public investment.

Nobody should be particularly happy, though, about the fact that our taxes have to go higher to pay for healthcare costs that are too high or for maintaining suburban infrastructure that is over-extended and overbuilt. We could have equally effective but much, much more efficient healthcare were it organized the way healthcare is organized in Ontario. Our per-capita infrastructure costs would be more manageable, too, were we to stop the expensive sprawl that our lack of county-wide planning dooms us to.

But we’re never going to get to good public policy until the “public” part of that phrase gets better advocacy. As we await the inevitable tax increases from our anti-tax County leaders, who are just about finished spending Barack Obama’s stimulus funds, we should at least shush the “red” rhetoric and get clear about where public money comes from, where it goes and how it works for us.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Haters and silence

Time To Go, Chris
by Bruce Fisher

The Corrosive Consequences of Casual Hate Speech

In the best of times, Buffalo is a hard sell. We’re a little city in the cold part of fly-over country, an inconvenient eight-hour drive from Manhattan, Boston, Washington, or Chicago—the big cities where America’s political, cultural, financial, scientific, educational, and entrepreneurial leaders live. Despite the sunny reality of our summers, the pleasant livability of our short commutes, our world-class natural and cultural amenities, America and the world alike imagine us to be a snowy place that houses terrorists, sits atop Love Canal, jails innocent non-rapists, and loses Super Bowls.

It just got harder. Buffalo now has an elected official who makes anti-Semitic remarks to an audience that chuckles nervously rather than getting up, leaving the room and demanding his resignation.

Even worse, reports are coming in that this Western New York elected official has for some weeks now, perhaps longer, been using the lines that were first reported in the New York Daily News. Collins recently made the same comparison to a group of Buffalo State students, in the presence of two members of the faculty.

How does a community look when its leaders—religious, secular, institutional, and elected alike—merely shrug at hate speech?

Other than condemnations by Democratic Party Chairman Len Lenihan and Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, the silence about Chris Collins’s characterization of an Orthodox Jew as “anti-Christ” and as “Hitler” is deafening.

There is no movement afoot to unseat Collins. The bishop of the Catholic Diocese hasn’t said a word. Unlike in the early 1980s, when a blatantly racist, anti-Semitic neo-Nazi came to town, no university or college presidents are leading hundreds of community residents on a march to confront the evil-sayer. The head of the local Jewish Federation has uttered a cautious critique that is far, far short of condemnation—though some have told me that this is completely understandable, actually, as members of wronged religious minorities have learned, through long and bitter historical experience, that sometimes it is better to endure stoically. But there’s political silence in the air as well: Fifteen county legislators, all of whom are up for re-election, 10 of whom are the political foes of the Jew-basher, are silent. Republicans have pointed to Collins’s anemic apology and have announced that it is time to “move on.”

The evidence so far is that in this part of New York State, there is no immediate political consequence to anti-Semitism. In the rest of the state, however, the many hundreds of thousands of readers of New York City newspapers know, again, that Upstate New York, like South Carolina, hosts politicians who make anti-Semitic remarks and stay in office.
Five reasons why this matters

Here’s a list of reasons why that’s a problem for this community.

• Western New York is dependent on downstate, and that makes the region politically vulnerable. As reported here before, the Buffalo metro area annually receives more than $1 billion more in New York State expenditures than the Buffalo metro area contributes in taxes to the New York State exchequer. Most of that money comes in the form of transfer payments—pension checks to retirees and subsidies to public assistance. Albany also sends funds for the state university, checks to state employees, payments to local governments, and enormous chunks of cash that keep construction workers working on things like the Buffalo schools reconstruction project. The money that constitutes entitlements will keep coming. But the discretionary money is, well, discretionary. In a tight budget year, nobody would be surprised if downstate elected officials—whose constituents, after all, are paying our bills—would be responsive to downstate voters who are angry about anti-Semitic hate speech uttered by an upstate politician whose community is largely silent about his anti-Semitic hate speech. Why should downstate Assembly members send us an extra dime beyond the handouts they already send?

• Expressly anti-Semitic language may be part of the political culture in South Carolina, but until now, even code words were taboo up here in the civilized North. As a leader of a national coalition of progressive Christian Democrats told me Tuesday when I described the statements of County Executive Collins, hateful speech about religious and other minorities “coarsens us all.” Permit me to suggest that it’s much worse than that. Religious leaders, activists, and American grownups everywhere spent decades of effort to kill off the “N” word in public discourse. Inter-group enmity, tribal resentments, and ancient stereotypes live on more persistently than zombies, but furtively, like foot fungus in locker rooms. But in 2008, there was a pretty decisive national rejection of the time-tarnished American ethos of hate speech. Now, however, it is popping up all over the place again. That should worry everybody—because the last time this behavior became part of American political discourse, a Western New Yorker named Timothy McVeigh murdered 168 government workers in Oklahoma City.

• This anti-Semitic hate speech fits a local pattern. We want to think of ourselves as a progressive community with shared values. Conservative and liberal alike, our business and civic leadership invests mightily in the not-for-profit entities—especially our artistic, architectural, and community-service organizations, from the BPO to the Wright icons—that define us and our hometown as part of civilized society. But when a politician utters gutter words, and concurrently dis-invests in community assets, the community ought to do something to defend its reputation as the Jew-basher manifests his ideology and rhetoric in his budgets. There is no outrage over the Jew-bashing. So far, neither is there any protest from his alleged opposition of the sharp reductions in local public support for libraries, cultural organizations, aid to indigent women, and to human services that address the needs of the last and the least. No protest, no pushback, no nothing? No community, apparently, either.

• Without sane Republicans, the Red State divide will worsen. This is, after all, the state of Nelson Rockefeller, the Republican governor under whose stewardship was created the 46-campus State University of New York system and countless artistic, environmental, historic-preservation, and enduring infrastructure projects. Progressive Erie County Republicans Ned Regan and Joel Giambra funded culturals and fought for knitting city and suburbs together. How the heck does this state have anything like a policy discussion worth the words when the only thing Republicans have to say about Jew-bashing Chris Collins is nothing? Does this mean that all Republicans are Jew-haters? My quiet survey of a few Republicans so far tots up lots of sighs and eye-rolling, and statements like “Collins is political toast.” Democrats put on a brave face about how useful Collins’s statements are going to be as they set out to raise funds from disgusted GOPers. But to the non-insider, the message so far is that Collins erred only by degree, not in essence—and to the general public, the basic assertion that Sheldon Silver is some kind of anti-Upstate monster of demonic proportion is going unchallenged.

• Worse behavior will come if there are no consequences now. It is unlikely that anybody insensitive enough to repeatedly compare an Orthodox Jew to the historic murderer of Jews will have the wit to resign public office. What is more likely is that the narcissism that spawned such heedless hatefulness will result in the reaction that all narcissists exhibit when criticised—namely, a great big sense of victimhood. Soon enough, especially if MSNBC talk-show host Rachel Maddow does another spot on Collins (she was ruthlessly critical of Collins on the issue of the Erie County Holding Center), Collins and his apologists will do what heedless haters do: They’ll scream that they’ve been wronged. That’s when the barstool bubbas will start doing what resentful loud-mouths do: They’ll talk about the black helicopters, the International Jewish Conspiracy, the “truth” of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the rest. And there will be more bad words, and, inevitably, more bad behavior.

This community has suffered from decades of capital flight and the resulting income stagnation, persistent poverty, social discord and erosion and outright closure of beloved community institutions. The politics of racial divisiveness, exacerbated by suburban self-isolation, worsened the negative economic fundamentals. Every historical parallel, especially to the distressing analogies of the 1930s, indicates that we are vulnerable to demagoguery and to hate speech. And now we have it.
The real Sheldon Silver

As for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver from faraway Manhattan, it is hard for Western New Yorkers to perceive him as anything but a distant stranger because of his infrequent presence in a media market where all politics feels local, angry, and anti-government. The facts don’t much matter, but his voting record is simple and clear. He is a strong supporter of unions. He is a supporter of progressive income taxation. He is a supporter of an expanded definition of civil rights that includes gays. He is an unapologetic defender of the role of government services. His demeanor isn’t sunny, to be sure. Politics ain’t beanbag, and you don’t stay leader by being a pushover, so his alleged intolerance of dissent should come as no surprise. An impartial observer notes that the fear or angst about Silver reflects frustration about the imbalance of power between rich and populous downstate versus empty and poor upstate. But since when is demographic reality or relative political powerlessness an excuse to call Sheldon Silver vile names, bash his religion, and compare him to a psychopathic murderer of innocents?

There is no excuse. Nor is there any excuse for silence. What needs to happen is for black veterans of the Civil Rights movement to stand up and ask Chris Collins to resign. What needs to happen is for the women and men who work so hard to help the international reputation of this community to step forward and tell the world that we will not be led by a hate-speaker. It’s time for religious leaders to demand a better standard of behavior, and acts of contrition, the first act being a resignation. It’s time for community leaders to figure out a way to speak just a little bit of truth to a little bit of power. After all, folks, the Erie County executive commands neither army nor militia. (That may be why the leading Jewish organization in town isn’t mixing it up, for after all, what does a little county leader threaten, really?) All he has is his mouth and his minions.

One recalls what Pope John Paul II said when he served mass to Lech Walensa and a few hundred thousand Poles back when the Solidarity movement was up against communist tanks and guns, “Do not fear.” They didn’t fear. They stood up. They won.

Back down on political earth, though, maybe it’s easier simply to ask politicians to say something before next Tuesday. So here’s a question for Ed Cox, the true gentleman who is a great leader of the movement to offer educational opportunity to poor kids, the man who is now the leader of the Republican Party in New York State: Ed, when Chris Collins called Sheldon Silver the “anti-Christ,” and when Chris Collins compared Sheldon Silver to Adolph Hitler, what did you say or do? Did you get up and leave? Did you demand an apology? Did you weigh in on that person’s fitness to hold public office? Or were you silent?

Lenny Lenihan said his piece. Sam Hoyt said his. Are there any other Democrats who have anything to say about this? Are Democrats really so cynical that they will chuckle about Collins’s hateful speech as nothing more than a political gaffe, or is something more sinister lurking in this community—like, perhaps, quiet agreement that Shelly Silver is everything Chris Collins says he is?

New York wants to know.

Bruce Fisher is former deputy county executive for Erie County and visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sadly, Sam Tanenhaus is wrong.

Conservatism, The Zombie Edition
by Bruce Fisher

The movement is dead, long live the moment

A month ago, the Gallup poll asked Americans if there is too much, too little, or about the right amount of government regulation of business. This week, Gallup asks if government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. In August, just over 44 percent thought that government regulates too much. But over 57 percent of those surveyed today think that government tries to do too much.

It is not even a year after the global financial crash of 2008. Credible analysts, in the main, concur that it was only the $1 trillion-plus infusion of public money that prevented the Great Depression from arising from the grave. Yet already, the great well of conservative-inspired anti-government feeling is already overflowing.

Politics happens fast, perhaps too fast for most political book-writers to keep pace. Maybe that’s why it is difficult to believe that the new book by Sam Tanenhaus, The Death of Conservatism, could be other than premature liberal triumphalism.

Setting aside its burdensome (because too grand) title, this short book is really a succinct history of 50 years of the American intellectual elite’s effort to get some traction with politicians. The conflict in our democracy, and among our intellectuals, is pretty stark: Liberals seek to provide some rationale for government as a legitimate mediator, a redistributor of wealth when necessary, but withal the institution that we task to maintain social peace, while the conservative movement’s project is to justify the results as the wealthy divert public funds into private hands.

It’s a timely book about a movement in flux. Dead just this season are two of the prime movers of modern conservatism, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Irving Kristol. These two writers helped shape conservatism as an intolerant assertion of orthodoxy. By contrast, says Tanenhaus, what he calls “the modern liberal world view” is premised not on an opposite orthodoxy but on consensus:

“Today’s conservatives resemble the exhumed figures of Pompeii, trapped in postures of frozen flight, clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology.”

When I read that kind of stuff, I feel like uttering a Howard Dean yell in solidarity.
A polarizing history
Moynihan's report on unstable urban black families became a tool for conservatives.

Tanenhaus is good at the history that his East Coast readership will understand (his day job is as editor of the New York Times Book Review). He takes special pleasure in explaining Bill Buckley’s brief but influential candidacy for mayor back in 1965. Buckley didn’t like Civil Rights and he didn’t like unions, but he did like bicycle lanes. Buckley’s political job was to put a genteel face on the nasty, grunting, angry politics of the first Congressional election after Lyndon Johnson’s civil and voting rights legislation of 1964 and 1965 passed. Tanenhaus gets that history exactly right: It was Richard Nixon’s political opportunity.

He’s good, too, on telling about how a well intended scholarly analysis by a liberal Catholic intellectual named Daniel Patrick Moynihan had profound political consequences for years and years to come. Moynihan, one of the legion of Ivy Leaguers hired by Kennedy and kept on by Johnson, and one of the architects of Johnson’s war on poverty, wrote a report entitled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” When Johnson used Moynihan’s data and gave a speech at Howard University in 1966 about the problem of intractable urban poverty among African-Americans, the president was warmly received. When speech co-author Moynihan laid his deep concern that the steep rise in out-of-wedlock births was undermining any prospect of alleviating poverty, Moynihan was attacked as a racist—even though the distinguished African-American social scientist Kenneth Clark, not the Irishman, had first used the phrase “tangle of pathology” to describe the family instability among the urban black poor.

Within a couple of years, Moynihan, the appointee of liberal Democrats, was a Nixon appointee, not just because he was so intelligent, but also because liberals’ rage against Moynihan was politically useful to conservatives.

Tanenhaus approves of Presidents Eisenhower and Clinton as Burkean conservatives bent on making government function better; by that measure, Nixon was one, too, and not a polarizing Reagan or George W. Bush who unleashed orthodox conservatism on the land. But when Tanenhaus approvingly calls Barack Obama a conservative, one shudders. Obama’s healthcare initiative is “pure Disraeli,” a reference to the 19th-century British Tory prime minister. Obama’s foreign policy is conservative. His effort to fortify the banking system has been conservative: “All these are the actions of a leader who, while politically liberal, is temperamentally conservative and who has placed his faith in the durability—and renewability—of American institutions.”

One’s heart sinks. Tanenhaus is one of those liberals who believes that if we are all adult and if we play by the rules and act responsibly, we will win, that virtue will triumph and reason prevail. This book reminds me of my sinking feelings reading The New Republic after Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. Nobody wanted to talk about how outrageous it was that Reagan repeated Nixon’s electoral tactic of code-word racism. It’s as if we can’t tell the truth about what’s outside our doors, waiting to come back in. We have to call Congressman Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” screech an example of old Jacksonian anti-elitism, or working-class populism, rather than what it is—a bluntly effective racist campaign tactic.
Bringing it home

What Tanenhaus really means by his title is this: The nasty, hard-edged political messaging of the conservative movement won’t work anymore. Tanenhaus, sadly, is as wrong as can be.

That’s because anybody who has run a political campaign covering at least one media market knows that racism is an enduring reality, and thus appeals to racism will remain an enduringly effective campaign tactic that will be employed by Republicans. The business elite, especially the financial-assets elite, will do whatever it can, wherever it can, to devalue and delegitimize government as liberals conceive it. They will do this so that its favored political organization, the Republican Party, will deliver the goods, i.e., private access to public money.

The liberal coalition is fragile, and Republicans know it. Witness the recent mayoral election in Buffalo as an example of how conservative messaging and conservative politics work even in an overwhelmingly Democratic area.

In this town, as in most every town, the major media’s chief concern is self-preservation in a marketplace where they are swiftly losing market share to the tsunami of alternative media—especially infotainment and the internet—even while they are losing power due to the general disengagement of the electorate. What’s the preferred technique of self-preservation here? Simple: to hammer their brand ID. A key part of the brand ID is the anti-government message.

Not so coincidentally, the leading business-advocacy groups in America have the same message, nationally and here in Buffalo. The chamber of commerce’s practice and outlook is to destroy the legitimacy of government, locally and nationally. That’s literally what they are after. Here, it is the Buffalo Niagara Partnership’s staff’s job to tell its declining membership that government is the problem, and therefore that the private sector, or the business community, should control every aspect of the flow of public funds here. Ergo the control boards. The result: a pale version of fascism with a snarling, whiny face.

That’s why the recent history of the Leonard Stokes One Sunset loan case, like the six-year-old case of furniture vendor James Spano, has been hammered so relentlessly. The political impact of Byron Brown’s relationship with Stokes and of Joel Giambra’s relationship with Spano has been eerily similar, just as the story is eerily similar. While hundreds of millions in government contracts annually go to chamber of commerce members who are vendors, with not a peep uttered anywhere, a hundred thousand here and there that allegedly goes awry gets the full focus of the major media. This allows the anti-government axis the ammunition to devalue any leader’s political brand in order to promote their own. That is why they focus story after story on the absurd anti-government rants of downsizers and teabaggers.

The assault on Brown is like the assault on Giambra, in that it was a coordinated effort to devalue government and to wreck the brand of any individual, especially a political leader, who threatened to become an independent entity.

It won’t be long before Obama backs an unlucky venture by a supporter, or stands by a subordinate who buys a legit but hard-to-explain service, or is embarrassed by a mumble-mouthed appointee and has to lop off a head. But it didn’t take the demise of green jobs czar Van Jones or the ACORN video to give movement conservatism its ammunition. The conservatives’ ammunition is built into our geography. So long as racial polarization is amplified by city-versus-suburb governance and spatial polarization; so long as local elites can hammer political elites for nugatory performance lapses that horrify flaccid liberals; and so long as financial elites want to avoid government oversight, there will be a ready-made constituency for, a ready-made media for, and a ready-made funding mechanism for conservatism, in whatever iteration its hack intellectuals devise.

Tanenhaus writes good history. Sadly, the movement conservatism he says is dead is not. It just awaits a competent campaign manager. Even more sadly, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman recently observed, Barack Obama has a “visceral reluctance to engage in anything that resembles populist rhetoric,” even when populist economics—like penalizing risky banking practices—would actually be good economics. Obama’s left-populist campaign defeated a movement conservative campaign. The best hope for defeating it again would be some left-populist governing for a change.

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Polish Legacy Project

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Before All Memory Is Lost
by Bruce Fisher

Jozef Slawinski's copper mural commemorating the Soviet massacre of 16,000 Poles at Katyn during World War II on display in Buffalo City Hall (photo by Lydia Fisher)

The Polish story of survival in Buffalo after Hitler and Stalin

Deep in a dark recess in Buffalo’s City Hall is a terrifying piece of art made by the same Polish exile who created the Calasanctius mural. Jozef Slawinski’s hammered-copper bas-relief commemorates the place, the event, the process, the unimaginable suffering that the Poles know as Katyn.
Members of a Polish religious order march during Easter high mass at the Corpus Christi Church in Buffalo, ca. 1943. (Library of Congress)
A priest blessees a Polish family's table the Saturday before Easter. (Library of Congress)

Everybody has heard of Picasso’s Guernica, that terrifying huge canvas at a Madrid museum that portrays the German bombing of a Basque village during the Spanish Civil War. Everybody in the world should know of Slawinski’s abstract piece on the Soviet massacre of more than 16,000 Polish officers, elected officials, nobles, and intellectuals in the Katyn forest during World War II.

Had it not been for the late mayor Jimmy Griffin making a political gesture to Buffalo Poles, then not even Buffalo would know about Katyn.

It’s as if history has been privatized. Just as Slawinski’s Katyn is hidden away in an alcove few visit, the stories of a generation of as many as 20,000 immigrants to Buffalo have never become known beyond the whispered conversations of survivors. On the border between Buffalo and Cheektowaga, there are hundreds of stone monuments to members of the Polish army-in-exile who came to America, specifically to Buffalo, and who lived out the remainder of their lives in the hope of returning to their homeland, but while here created a complex legacy that literally reshaped our collective landscape.

Andy Golebiowski and a small group of volunteers formed the Polish Legacy Project to try to gather up some of the stories of the Polish DPs. DPs were the “displaced persons” who survived the German death camps, including Auschwitz and Buchenwald, where so many of their Jewish and Christian countrymen were murdered. The DPs were also the survivors of the German forced-labor camps and farm-labor slavery, people who then found themselves stranded in Allied zones at war’s end in 1945. The DPs were also thousands of Polish military men, like the legions who fought in Italy, who knew that Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt had decided the fate of their country at the Yalta conference in 1945—which was to leave Poland in the Soviet sphere of influence, and leave them in need of a place to go that wasn’t going to be ruled by the Russians who had also slaughtered, deported, or brutalized their countrymen.

Golebiowski, a Buffalo native who works as a camera operator for a TV news station, himself knows many of these stories. His mother, who was seven in 1939 when the war began, was living on a farm when the Germans rode into the nearby town of Rokitno and massacred all the Jews there. She tells how her Catholic parents gave refuge to two Jewish children who had somehow survived the shtetl liquidation, and how the Nazis returned to their farm only hours before her father took those children into the woods to deliver them to the partisans, for the Nazis had threatened to burn their farm to the ground if they found any Jews hiding there. They searched. The children were gone. They burned the farm anyway. They were lucky: The Nazi penalty for aiding a Jew in Poland was death for the entire family.

Golebiowski’s mother can still tell how she came to America. His father, a prisoner of war who was forced to work on German farms, told his own harrowing stories, but they died with him in 1999. Many of the people who came to Buffalo have died, taking their stories with them. In the Saint Stanislaus Cemetery on Pine Ridge Road, gravestones in a special military section are marked with the names of regiments and the briefest of notes about war-time experiences. These notes form a succinct code of service, and of suffering. “Sibyr,” say many of them, a brief reference to the horrors of young men and women who were deported to Siberia. “Auschwitz” is carved into several of these crosses, reminding us that three million Christian Poles died during the same period that three million Jewish Poles were murdered. “Monte Cassino” is on several, a note about the Poles’ unheralded capture of Sicily before the armies of Patton and Montgomery won glory there.
The world the Poles made here

They began arriving after 1948, when President Harry Truman signed a special displaced persons immigration bill, which he criticized for being so insufficient a gesture that he called it “inhumane.” Americans today can be forgiven for having forgotten how immense the destruction of World War II was—because that cataclysm ended 65 years ago, and since then we have seen Vietnam, Central America, the Rwanda genocide, the Bosnian massacres, Iraq, and more.

The story that will unfold in the Polish Legacy Project’s conference October 3 and 4 here in Buffalo, though, is partly about the local impact of the largest forced migration in history.
Gravesite of Kazimiera Baczek, an Auschwitz prison camp survivor and one of the man displaced Poles in Buffalo, buried at Satin Stanislaus Cemetary. (photo by Lydia Fisher)

Everybody more or less knows about our great 19th-century immigrant stories. Joey Giambra recently made the documentary La Terra Promessa, about the Sicilian story. Irish-Americans succeeded, after many years, in erecting a memorial to the Irish famine of the 1840s, in which hundreds of thousands died, and which led to the mass exodus of the Gaeltacht. There has even been a film made of the pre-1920s Polish migration.

But the thousands of Poles who found refuge here after World War II are a different, separate, largely untold story.

These were not the unlettered peasants imported by Gilded Age industrialists to work the mines and factories. Many of the displaced persons were educated, because Poland in the years after World War I had broadened the reach of its schools. Many DPs arrived knowing English, especially those who had been in the military in Britain or in British-controlled territories in the Mideast. Some had been among the 1.5 million Poles who had been exiled to Siberia or to Central Asia by Stalin; there are, or were, Poles in Buffalo who had toiled in cotton fields in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan until they made their way out.

And their presence in Buffalo was not without friction, even in a generally welcoming Polonia.

Educated refugees from Poland’s 20th-century cities arrived in a city whose Polish population was two or three generations distant from Poland’s 19th-century farms. The new arrivals spoke a different, more modern language, not the frozen-in-amber antique from their grandparents’ day, which was even stranger for all its Americanisms. The DPs were not much interested in that non-Polish musical phenomenon so beloved of American Polonia, the polka. College-educated people from Poland had little in common with factory workers clustered in neighborhoods around the Broadway Market. Some have observed that the newcomers were not at all like the bar owner described by Verlyn Klinkenborg in The Last Fine Time, who was happily becoming more and more American all the time as the 1950s became the 1960s. Though grateful to America for providing refuge, these migrants were not interested in being American: They were Poles.

They formed Polish-language academies, the “Saturday schools” to which they sent their children so that their next generation would be fluent in written and spoken Polish, conversant with Polish history, aware of Polish national holidays, and part of the thousand-year continuity of Polish culture. They did not feel bound by any particular neighborhood, though the parishes and Polish-American sponsors welcomed them. Their neighborhoods were back home, and until they gave up the dream of returning, the focus, for many, was not North America but Europe.
The urgent task
Detail of a mural in the lobby of the Erie County Medical Center created by Jozef Slawinski to honor the founding of the St. Stanislaus Parish in Buffalo.

The children of the DPs are themselves now in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. If the DPs themselves are still alive, there is not much time in which to do the job of “rescue” or “salvage” collecting.

Thus the urgency of the conference. Strolling the rows of crosses at the Polish Veterans’ Plot at St. Stan’s Cemetery, one senses the urgency-cognizant of the fact that in five years, when the 75th anniversary of WWII is commemorated, there may be no one left who can give a firsthand account of life then.

The Polish Legacy Project’s mission is to record and to share the untold stories before they join all the other undocumented stories at the cemetery. The PLP is fighting against the clock, trying to make up for 60 years of silence. Unlike the stories of the Holocaust, these stories of survival, suffering and heroism largely do not exist in the English language.

Work has begun on videotaping survivors’ accounts, and in collecting photographs and artifacts of the Poles’ long journeys to Buffalo. Golebiowski and the other organizers hope that the conference will serve as a critical spark to a wider engagement on the part of interested people and institutions, and perhaps give survivors new-found courage to talk about experiences that have either been private, or about which they’ve kept silent.

Visit for conference details.

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Inspired incrementalism

The Hustle
by Bruce Fisher

Comfortable rich men debate our future in DC this week

Today’s version of the intellectual hustle stars a now-obscure book about the French Revolution by Edmund Burke, an Englishman who didn’t much like all the blood, the guillotines or much else about the terror of 1789. The hustle works as follows: smart and well-connected folks who throw around massive amounts of campaign contribution money seek out newspaper columnists, TV talking heads and bloggers—the folks who appear on the Sunday morning TV talk shows—who sound clever as they advocate for the interests of people who come up with massive amounts of campaign contributions. Cleverness is not exactly rented. But it is so very useful to those who fund campaigns.

The cleverest among the pundits study hard to be like the formidably educated Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen, who was wrongly accused of writing Jack Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage, but who made no secret of helping his clients with brief snippets of Aeschylus, Sophocles and more than a little Shakespeare. The Kennedys always sounded very good, thanks to Sorensen and his library.

What was in Sorensen’s library? The classic dramas of the Greek tragedians, yes; the Federalist Papers, yes; Shakespeare, of course. But in the 1970s, when the big corporate money-men who had backed the tragic Richard Nixon were driven from Washington by Jimmy Carter, the “conservative” intellectuals they hired had their own, very different libraries. Where Kennedy’s guys had John Maynard Keynes, the anti-government Right stuck with Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, who believed that government intervention in the economy meant that soon America would become a dour, slovenly socialist dystopia. Where Kennedy’s guys had classical Greek texts about the virtues of democracy and small “r” republicanism, and had the Vatican II version of Catholicism that emphasized justice for the poor, the clever fellows (and Peggy Noonan) who became Ronald Reagan’s speechwriters steeped themselves in tomes that praised property, praised aristocracy and hammered the unwashed demos. One of the key texts of the “conservative” movement was Edmund Burke.

This week will be a pretty good indicator of whether President Obama is Keynesian, a Shakespearean, a Vatican II guy, or a Burkean. We will know pretty soon, because President Obama will either boldly hammer home a courageous, thorough-going reorganization of healthcare policy that reflects the Kennedy intellectual heritage, or Obama will punt on all that and instead gives us a nuanced, lawyered parsing of current practice, in furtherance of the anti-revolutionary, anti-populist, pro-aristocratic politics whose textbook and spiritual guide is Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Bet on Burke, folks. But the more Burke we hear, the angrier the Left will be, because it seems to be dawning on the Netroots, the Daily Kos, the Huffington Post and others that big-time change on issues of broad concern to the small “r” republic is probably not going to come.
Negotiating privilege

Our country, our nation of laws, of balanced powers that check one another, is not about revolution. Even our Revolution wasn’t revolutionary. The great traditions of English jurisprudence were never, ever disrupted here, except on national security grounds: Lincoln and habeus corpus during the Civil War, the Palmer Raids on Reds in the Wilson Administration, Roosevelt’s internment of the Japanese, the sorry reign of J. Edgar Hoover, and of course George Bush and the supine Congress and their rotten Patriot Act. Our civil rights get kicked around, but not our property rights as anciently defined in England. English definitions of property rights persisted with especial vigor when applied to the dispossession of folks not organized by English rules. American constitutional history, which our president used to teach, marches on through ever-more refined applications of 18th-century notions of property rights.

That’s why we have a Supreme Court that continues to reaffirm the view that spending money on campaigns is the same as free speech. Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor could clone each other twice apiece and that ain’t going to change.

So the only hope that Americans can rationally have for big-time reform in a fundamental social-justice issue (like universal healthcare) is that one set of property-controlling aristocrats remains financially articulate enough to beat their aristocratic rivals, because change, if any, is going to come on the terms of that segment of our aristocracy that best reassures their peers that their enjoyment of privilege won’t be disturbed..

But that’s too theoretical, so let’s bring it home.

Today in Erie County, well over 50 percent of our citizens have or are eligible for health insurance and/or services that are paid for by taxes paid to federal, state and county government.

There are about 900,000 people in Erie County. Over 235,000 of them are eligible for Medicaid, Family Health Plus or Child Health Plus because they are poor, or Medicare because they are over 65 years of age. (Unlike in Britain where healthcare workers are public employees, few of the healthcare providers here are government employees; Medicaid and Medicare pay the bills private providers submit.)

Then add to the Medicaid-Medicare number the over 100,000 Erie County residents who are eligible for government-paid health insurance because they or their heads-of-household are public employees—cops, firemen, teachers, judges, social workers, et al. That gets the count up to about 48 percent of the county. Another 95,000 Erie County citizens are veterans who are eligible to use the VA. So well over half of us already experience “the public option” over which our president will either take a stand…or not.

The hundreds of thousands of individuals and families here who are covered by employer-paid private insurance are tax-subsidized too, because their employers receive a tax deduction for the portion of the bill they pay for their workers’ coverage.

But look around you: how much of this publicly-funded system is run by the civil service? Answer: not very much. There are fewer than 3,000 healthcare workers at Erie County Medical Center. Kaleida, the publicly-funded not-for-profit entity, has around 10,000 employees. The Catholic Health System has a couple of thousand decidedly non-public employees. There are about 3,000 physicians in this community, only a handful of whom are civil servants.

It is the American way that taxpayer dollars go to private businesses like nursing homes, physician practice groups, various kinds of therapists, insurance companies with multi-million-dollar executive payrolls, and for-profit diagnostic outfits that test our blood and use magnetic resonance imagers on our organs. Healthcare-related tax-exempt institutions get taxpayer dollars directly and indirectly, through tax-deductible contributions and through direct and indirect medical education subsidies.

And here’s what our taxpayer dollars buy for us: the largest salaries of any not-for-profit entities are the salaries of hospital administrators and health-insurance executives. The biggest non-banker take-home pay is taken home by physicians who own diagnostic operations, except for sometimes bigger pay-packets for high-end procedure-billing specialists. The financial rewards built into the current system have created new kinds of aristocrats, whose trade groups lobby hard to keep the status as quo as possible.

A “revolution” would not be to offer up a public option to force a tiny bit of competition in all that. The revolution would be for the US to get a British-style system, in which not only does the government pay the bills, but in which the government delivers the services. (Leave aside for the moment that there is precisely nothing radical or revolutionary about the British national health system, or the Canadian system, either, both of which cost about half what the US mess costs, and both of which deliver better life expectancy, universal coverage and outcomes equivalent to ours.)
Believe LBJ, not the book

It was John F. Kennedy and his Greek-quoting intellectuals who got universal healthcare back onto the national agenda in the 1960s. But only after Kennedy was beaten by bullets, and after the master politician Lyndon Johnson won massive Democratic majorities in Congress in the 1964 landslide, was Medicare was enacted. (Medicare is universal single-payer healthcare for the elderly.) President Harry Truman, who ended segregation in the armed forces and who tried but failed to enact universal coverage, was Medicare’s first enrollee.

The British didn’t get their universal healthcare system out of polite discourse: they got it because the country was destitute and physically shattered after World War II. Canada was too poor to afford an American-style interest-group feeding-frenzy, so when the Queen signed off on national healthcare in Britain, it was a short step for her to do so in Canada, too, a few years later.

But the Burkeans and other defenders of property pop up here to defend private property at the expense of the national interest or social justice—especially when the property in question was created by massive public subsidies, like today’s taxpayer-funded healthcare system. The response to Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare, and even to Richard Nixon’s near-endorsement of a universal coverage system (few remember that Nixon also endorsed wage and price controls and advocated a “reverse income tax,” which ultimately became the Earned Income Tax Credit) was rage, and outrage, by the property-rights crowd.

Not so long after Nixon left office one abrupt August morning, the most anti-government of the speechwriting, Classics-quoting political hustlers started founding their own think-tanks. It in 1977, one group created the Cato Institute, named after the senator of the Roman republic who conspired against Julius Caesar. (I confess to having re-learned this important fact this past summer in Delaware Park at the excellent performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.) Lyndon Johnson was routinely excoriated for being the new Caesar. Nixon got rapped by liberals for his allegedly imperial presidency, but the “conservatives” loved him.

But LBJ was a visceral populist. It wasn’t just because he wanted to challenge the privileges of those who believed that healthcare was their private property. Perhaps you will recall that Johnson, like Kennedy before him, wanted to disrupt that time-honored division of property rights that had been protected by racial segregation, and before it, by slavery.

Neither Lincoln, nor Truman, nor Kennedy, nor Johnson, the presidents who broke up time-honored concentrations of aristocratic privilege, were Burkeans. Deal-making politicians? The lot of ’em. But what links them through time and specific history is that they were, to a man, unafraid of entrenched elites.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Water, life and death

News Analysis

A Fateful Fall
by Bruce Fisher

What to expect when congress and Albany go back to work
Drought may force many 'Okies' to make their way back east.

On September 8, the day before Buffalo Public School kids return to class, our US senators and representatives return to work. At some later date in September, the New York State legislature will go back to Albany for a brief special session to deal with the budget problem that the recession has made much, much worse than when Governor David Paterson last called a special session.

The marquee issue for Congress this fall is healthcare reform. In Albany and most other state capitals, the issue is the budget. The usual ideological lines have been drawn, and the usual results can be expected: Congress will probably settle on a meaningful healthcare reform bill that extends coverage to many, and fixes some of the imbalance between the insurance industry and consumers, but that leaves most of the existing system intact. Chances are, there won’t be a public option, nor anything that could ever be characterized as “radical” or “fundamental.” In Albany, the usual suspects will carve out a deal that shaves some spending, postpones the day of structural reorganization of the tax system, of the entitlements system, and of the foot-the-bill-for-local-governments system, and that will patch the budget hole. For now.

Meanwhile, out-of-control wildfires are devouring the drought-stricken Los Angeles area. The National Aeronautics and Oceanic Administration (NOAA), which monitors drought conditions, indicates that at least half of California is experiencing conditions ranging from “abnormally dry” to “severe drought.” Oregon and Washington are suffering, too. But much closer to home, a large swath of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia is in severe drought—again. So is about a third of Texas; the NOAA calls it “extreme” or “exceptional” drought. Most of Minnesota and Wisconsin are in moderate to severe drought, too. (To read more, visit

There is a strong prospect of large-scale drought recurring for many years to come in the densely populated coastal region of California, in the densely populated Piedmont region of the Southeast, in the Dallas-Houston-Austin region of Texa,s and in the sparsely populated northern Midwest, too. Fast-growing Nevada and Arizona, plus the coastal Northwest, are color-coded the same way on the scientists’ maps. Approximately 100 million Americans today live in these places.

Does anybody believe that a Congress that has bobbled healthcare for two generations, or state legislatures that can’t balance column A with column B, are equipped to deal with the truly dramatic changes that the planet is evidently undergoing?
The infrastructure of tomorrow
It's not sexy, but deeper ports mean a more pleasurable experience for lake traders.

Be happy. Be very happy that, as a Great Lakes resident, you live in a part of the country that does not seem to be in the climate-change bull’s-eye.

And be happy, also, that our beleaguered governor is going all over upstate New York announcing a few million here and a few million there for clean-water projects. As the federal “stimulus” money devoted to infrastructure gets to flowing this year, it’s good news that some of it is actually going to go toward construction projects that may help preserve our precious fluids.

But don’t be complacent, either. According to Great Lakes United, the binational advocacy group that leads a coalition of the sensible, there is a consensus of credible estimates of the continued loss of water resources even here. Our five “glacial puddles” have water levels that are expected to drop so significantly (in part because of evaporation as warmer winters shorten the ice season) that a new fleet of shallow-drafting freighters will need to be put into service. Even the necessary dredging of the old harbors still won’t leave the big ore and grain boats enough water to float in.

On the wacky theory that this part of North America might become a zone of opportunity—if not of necessity—then it’s logical that we get ourselves prepared for the day when there’s not enough water in California, Texas, Atlanta, Oregon, Washington, and a few other places to sustain new population growth. That means infrastructure.

The infrastructure we need in the Great Lakes basin is not very glamorous. It’s deepened harbors so that the insanely efficient lake-freighters can haul freight from port to port. It’s cleaned-up river watersheds, which today have brownfield issues all the way from the Illinois River east to the Buffalo River, the Niagara River, and some of the lesser feeder-streams of Lake Ontario. It’s replacing old sewer systems and reducing runoff by making some suburban surfaces porous, so that our abundant rainfall percolates back into the ground rather than gushing into gutters.

Here’s the infrastructure we don’t need:

• We don’t need more roads. The declining population of upstate New York, upstate Pennsylvania, all of Ohio and all of Michigan does not require a more extensive network of roads. Even the Wall Street Journal recognizes that restraining output of the main greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide and methane—is a sensible thing to do.

• We don’t need an expanded Peace Bridge plaza. According to the latest report from Statistics Canada, manufacturing is a declining part of Canadian gross domestic product. It was 27 percent a decade ago. It is 19 percent today—notwithstanding the great shift in Canadian manufacturing from consumer to durable goods. (Manufactured goods are key Canadian exports.) The major exports of our neighbor continue to be goods that can be transported much more efficiently by trains, which have a greener footprint than effluent-belching trucks. Why would we stand by and allow an Olmsted park to be destroyed so that a 20th-century transport technology can devour our air-quality for another 100 years, especially when our true comparative advantage as a region is composed of our water access, our easily repaired urban infrastructure, and our greenery?

• We don’t need more conventional buildings, and we certainly don’t need more housing subdivisions. And it would be great, just great, if some of our federal “stimulus” money, and some of our state funds as well, went into sensible projects like green roofing, energy-efficiency retrofits to our old buildings, and even into help for a big regulatory change that some folks in the planning community are beginning to discuss in their professional magazines: requiring that every single new building meet LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards.

The Congress and our state legislature have great staff who read the same journals that our leading engineers, planners, climate scientists, and economists read and write for. All the stuff that the leading thinkers in this country produce is available to these staffers, and the smarter among them can help their elected members to make good policy. I expect that while the honorable members have been out at Labor Day picnics and town hall meetings, the smart young women and men who work for them have had ample time during the recess to see the news from the burnt hillsides of California, from the empty reservoirs of the Piedmont, and to note what the wonks say about the shrinking lakes outside our front door. As school starts up again, and as our legislators return to Washington and to their state capitals, the question for our politicians is whether they can deliver their usual non-solutions to mere policy issues quickly, so that they have energy enough to deal seriously with questions of life and death.