Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Dickens and Paris

Hilton, that is. The 26-year old "celebutante," a millionaire in her own right, was released from jail in Los Angeles today after serving three weeks of a 45-day sentence (and evincing "good behavior"). She cost the taxpayers more than ten times the average per day cost of prisoners because of all of the medical and psychiatric evaluations that her legal team managed to shake out of the system. The New York Times reported that already at least one person has filed suit alleging that their own medical needs were neglected by the Sheriff's Office.
I wonder how bad the worst story is in the Los Angeles County penal system? Let's see now, it's going to be a black woman, she has, maybe, leukemia or a brain tumor or something like that. She got arrested for stealing a bag of potato chips, and ended up in one of the worst dungeons in the system, where the doctor didn't get around to examining her for two years. Now she's in a wheel chair and blind, but there is a bureaucratic problem with her $350-a-month payment. Do you think that sounds exaggerated? I invite you to check the United States penal system out.
According to the Justice department's "Prison statistics" page at www.ojp.usdoj.gov, there are currently 2,193,778 people in prison in the United States. This page states that there are 491 prisoners per 100,000 citizens: 471 white males per 100,000 white males, 3,145 black males per 100,000 black males. Approximately 500,000 of those people are imprisoned for drug crimes (as distinct from "drug-related" crimes). nationmaster.com ranks the US as #1 in ratio of prisoners to population on Earth. Russia is #2, and the first western European country to show up on the list is Spain at #61. All of the basket cases and tyrannys of the world are between the US and Spain by this measurement.
And so this to me is the moral of the Paris Hilton case, that we need to see that 26-year old Paris Hilton and a 26-year old black man are entitled to equal justice, in one direction or another. She wasn't dropped down into the Dickensian dungeons, but they're there.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The State of Columbia

The current movement among some Republican lawmakers to create a voting Congressional seat for the District of Columbia's 550,000 residents is welcome, but it will be another step in a long road to justice and Constitutional citizenship for residents of the District, and indeed for all United States commonwealths and territories. As an eleven-year resident of Puerto Rico, I think it's striking that these issues of citizenship status for literally millions of people are scarcely in the consciousness of the larger public. But I wouldn't want to see this particular move celebrated as the end of the problem. The people of the District (and all other places where the people are American citizens under American rule) need proportional representation (in general they need exactly the same citizenship rights as all other American citizens). Would a state of 550,000 residents have more than one Representative? And what about Senators? The current plan would create an additional congressional seat for Utah to offset the political impact, thus sweetening the vote for Republicans, much as Republican Alaska was the balance for Democratic Hawaii in the 1950s. (I can imagine Dave Chappell going to town on this too-literal acknowledging of segregation.) But there isn't some unrepresented Republican place amongst the territories, I'd imagine, but maybe the Marshall Islands, maybe Guam's a surprise, the Virgins are strictly Democratic (like the District) but I think the Bushies might be right that the Republicans could build something in Puerto Rico. Of course the whole Puerto Rican discussion is different because of the independence movement, but that question also extends to all U.S. territories: do they have the right to vote their own independence, or not? From this point of view, it is presumptious for the Congress to simply decide that one and only one representative, without the apparatus of state government, and forget about the Senate and the Electoral College, is an adequate resolution of the issue.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Tucker and Stonewall

Jackson, that is. The rough soldier from Tennessee had a hard time gaining the respect of the Washington elite. Or one should say, he never did gain it and was never going to gain it. He outraged the upper crust by opening the doors of the White House for the first time; local gossips had his "hillbillies" standing on the chairs and wiping their hands on the drapes.
The more things change, etc. Let's see now: John McCain's father was admiral of the Pacific Fleet; Mitt Romney's father was CEO of General Motors and governor of Michigan; Al Gore's father was a senior Democratic senator; remember that picture of John Kerry as a boy spending the day on a yacht with JFK?; and George Bush's family you will recall.
All of this reflecting on MSNBC host Tucker Carlson's intense dislike of the Clintons. The Clintons, it seems, are self-promoting, money-grubbing hacks, phonies who would be nowhere if their luck had gone just a little bit differently. Yesterday he pointed out poll numbers that indicated that the poorer and less-educated a woman was, the more likely she was to support Clinton over Obama, whereas with better-educated women, the two candidates were neck and neck. (He didn't find it remarkable that there were over twice as many women in the first category as in the second.) I was struck by Carlson's interpretation of these data. He didn't conclude that Clinton's support among black voters was better than Obama's, although these data suggest just that. From his point of view, the evidence suggests that the Clintons are a trashy lot of rabble, and that the smart shoppers are going for Obama.
The more general observation is that the upper-class of philosophical conservatives have assumed since the Reagan years that they have a tacit claim on populist allegiances. They don't appreciate the effect they create when they sneer at non-rich people for being self-promoting, or for having spotty tastes, or dubious associations, or a million other things that self-made people have had to make do with since ancient times. Tucker Carlson, who is ably diplomatic on any number of other topics, thinks nothing of slamming the Congressional Black Caucus, for example, as a particularly villianous nest of grifters and frauds. Ridiculous on the face of it, but to Tucker just an obvious fact.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Puerto Rican AIDS a Test for Bush

I don't think that President Bush is the type to be terribly concerned about "legacy" issues coming in to the end of his term, but I do think he feels the same as always about what he sees as his political duty to the GOP. So this week we have rollouts of Bush proposals to 1) at least start to develop a national emissions policy for the US (something that would be years along if Gore had won in 2000) and 2) increase US funding for AIDS programs in Africa to $30 billion. This is policy on a grand scale, which is precisely why Bush is able to make it. He will cooperate with the loading of some tens of billions of dollars into the pipeline, and that will be that: what happens to the money downstream years from now is not his responsibility.
There is a faster way, though, to get some money to AIDS patients more or less right away, if the president really wants to put his money where etc., and that would be to improve funding for AIDS patients in the US and Puerto Rico. I mention Puerto Rico, aside from the fact that I live here, not because Puerto Rico has the US's worst rates of infection, as many might believe. Actually Puerto Rico ranks fifth amongst states and US territories in terms of infections per thousand people. Rather Puerto Rico is important because territories and states don't administer this kind of federal money in a consistent way. In the case of Medicaid, spending for Puerto Rico is "capped" (by US Congress) at $240 million. Meanwhile, the "Ryan White Act" money to supplement Medicaid for AIDS patients is a national fund of just $53 million. President Bush could show he was some action and not just all talk if he directed some of his civic-minded money to underfunded AIDS patients who are US citizens.
Unfortunately there is another problem for federal money in Puerto Rico, and that is the traditional Latin American bureaucracy that still exists in Puerto Rico and employs many thousands of government workers. In this old bureaucratic culture, federal money is "the pie," and the actual intentions of federal grants are treated with an attitude that approaches passive resistance. When Federal administrators suggested that the Ryan White Act money might be deposited in its own account, instead of just being emptied into the coffers of the San Juan municipal government, they were rebuffed. Possession, the reasoning goes, in nine tenths of the law. It is no surprise, then, that investigators complain of an excessive degree of both financial irregularities and service inefficiencies, and many AIDS patients are not getting the drugs they need.
Come to think of it, there was a politician in the 1990's who oversaw a program called the Paperwork Reduction Act, which apparently had some success in reducing the number of federal employees. You remember: Vice-President Gore.
(Today's post draws from reporting today in the New York Times.)

Monday, June 4, 2007

Bush's Emissions Plan Plan

There is clearly now an opportunity for movement on human-induced global climate change, specifically including reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. One feels the same kind of popular will as during the nuclear freeze movement of twenty years ago. Note that that movement did not in fact succeed in abolishing nuclear weapons. There is never a certainty of success. History is not determined. Still, there is just now enormous political pressure to take action (or to be seen as taking action) on the emissions-control front. In the US, for example, a certain politician who lost a disputed election to the president has come to be the most well-recognized leader on climate change policy in the country, going into an election when the president's party has reason to fear punishment from the voters on perceived (ok, real) failure to progress on environmental issues, among other things.
At first glance, things look a bit grim. The US last week won headlines around the world for rejecting the German host proposal on global warming policy in advance of the next round of talks. The same old brazen Bush rejectionism in the face of world opinion, on the surface. The Chinese, meanwhile, released their own document, predictably but still starkly similar to the US position: China will pursue technological fixes and efficiencies as it can, but the government does not think that it can make good-faith commitments for overall rates of reduction (the "top-down" model of the Kyoto Accords) while it is industrializing and expanding its economy during the present period. The Chinese have discovered the same logic that moves the Bush Administration. The idea is that economic and industrial activity is not evenly distributed and therefore global reduction targets are not rational for the biggest emitters.
I don't agree with that argument as stated, but I do see the process changing. There is a difference between some "top-down" formal imposition of climate change policy at whatever level (from municipal ordinance to global treaty), and the wider "bottom-up" informal social and political shift to an awareness of the problem and the will to do something about it. It may be that the only practical way to get started is for all of the parties to try to figure out what they think that they can, in fact, do at the moment: technically, practically, financially, politically.
Don't get me wrong: I'm all for municipal ordinances and global treaties and everything in between. As for the Bushies, at the very best their intentions are to try to set something up (start a national policy on emissions) that will be in place for the future president who will actually make hard choices about this. At worst the Bushies seek to co-opt those energies to forestall just such a policy for as long as possible. But I see the gears starting to move, the meters starting to read out, in a political climate where it is no longer possible for a regime to simply reject action.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Long Night for Joe Biden

It will be a mere TV show, not a Great Debate, in September when the Congressional Black Caucus's Democratic presidential debate airs on Fox: Joe Biden, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel attending. The rest of the Democratic contenders are refusing to go on Fox due to the alleged (OK, the real) conservatively-slanted bias of that station. (John Edwards is the only candidate so far to explicitly say so.) It seems to me that the candidates were asked to accept an invitation from the CBC, implicitly showing their respect for the good judgement of their host in arranging the venue. Surely this was the understanding all of those years with the League of Women Voters? There's no doubt that the CBC had their own discussion and debate about the decision to go with Fox, after all. Shouldn't their intentions be respected?
I don't know why the CBC chose Fox, but I can think of some reasons for doing so, mainly that a Democratic Party debate on Fox might enjoy a more politically diverse audience than usual. A different decision is the decision of the candidates to stay away, but the same logic mitigates against doing that: the public wants the Democratic Party to stand up to the right, to throw some punches, and not to appear so anxious not to alienate anyone politically.
It may very well be that Fox would like to use the opportunity to make Democrats in general look as bad as possible, although it's not clear how much control Fox would have over choice of questioners or questions. A subtext here is that this now-endless sequence of televised "debates" is souring with the candidates, who find that the moderators and questioners have too much control over the encounter and that the candidates have become ratings fodder for someone else. But if Fox does have malicious intentions for the Democrats, so much the better for the show I should think. The Democratic voters are looking for someone who can survive in this sort of environment, aren't we? Seems very unClintonlike to duck it, thinking along those lines. Think of the ratings.
As for the yet different question about "legitimizing" Fox, the right-wing propaganda machine, I think that doesn't work as an argument for two reasons. Politically this is an insular response: legitimate according to whom? I for one don't claim to have any authority to enforce what's legitimate; I respect the right of, say, the Amish to choose not to watch the number one-rated cable news channel. Secondly, don't we have a very standard lecture about how making pariahs of our enemies only makes pariahs of ourselves? Do Clinton, Obama and Edwards really mean to say that they won't even talk to Fox News? Come off it.
In any event, the candidates should attend out of respect for the Congressional Black Caucus. (And tip o' the hat this morning to Brian Lamb on C-Span's Washington Journal.)