Archive for March, 2011

Civil discourse on a difficult subject: race

(reprinted from  July 18, 2010)

WASHINGTON — Can we talk? About race?

Your blood pressure is already rising? It need not. This isn’t a rambling diatribe or a harsh polemic filled with invective about tea partiers, Jim Crow and reparations.

Instead, it’s a plea for honest and thoughtful conversation about the ways in which long-held beliefs and biases, prejudices and predispositions pool in the back of our brains to form a feedback loop, a quick and unconscious Google which spits out judgments about people like us, different from us, unfamiliar to us.

This column won’t address the remnants of malevolent racism that linger at the margins of American society — whether expressed by a tea partier’s Photoshopped sign of President Obama as a witch doctor or a member of the New Black Panthers yelling about killing white people. Those remnants are too few and too feeble to merit serious attention.

The more challenging problem for a diverse society is harder to see, to pinpoint, to …

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Class shackles hard to break

(reprinted from 1/30/2005)

Before I was conceived, I did an exceptional job of choosing my parents.

Sitting there in Elysium (or wherever I was before conception), I decided to be born to black parents in the segregated South. But I didn’t want to be severely limited by my circumstances, so I chose a young couple who were married, employed, had graduate degrees, who were unburdened by alcoholism or criminal history . . .

What? You doubt me? You don’t think that’s how I came to be born into middle-class circumstances? You don’t think children choose their parents?

Well, we conduct public policy as if we do.

Whenever I write a column criticizing social traditions and public policies that ignore children born to parents of modest means — without stock market portfolios or networks of well-connected friends — I’m swamped by a deluge of letters from readers angry that I’d even suggest that government intervene to give those children a hand up: Parents are responsible for their …

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More mendacity on health care reform

WASHINGTON — One year after Congress passed a landmark health care law, its detractors continue to campaign against it with deceit, dissembling and distortion. They have blamed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act for a high unemployment rate, runaway deficits and spiraling health care costs.

The facts don’t count for much in this debate. It doesn’t seem to matter that President Obama’s predecessor ate through a budget surplus with two unfunded wars and, ironically, a huge new health care entitlement — a prescription drug plan for seniors. Nor does it seem to matter that health care costs were soaring for years before the Affordable Care Act, which curbs Medicare spending.

Obama and his Democratic colleagues, including Nancy Pelosi, share the blame for the confusion and misinformation that abound: They did a poor job of building public support for the law, allowing Republicans to create a backlash.

But you’ve got to give the law’s critics credit, too. Unrestrained by …

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Saving America’s shrinking middle-class

WASHINGTON — Every nation has its founding myths, but ours are singular — brimful of ideas about self-reliance, entrepreneurship and egalitarianism. Americans are a people whose political and civic culture rely on the belief that any person can get ahead if he works hard enough, if he is determined enough, if he is resilient enough.

It’s a useful view that fuels the dynamism, creativity and resourcefulness that have made our economy the envy of the world. A people who believe they can do anything if they set their minds to it are bound to accomplish much of what they attempt.

But our smug acceptance of those Horatio Alger myths has also blinded us to reality: it is harder to get ahead in this country than we think. There isn’t as much economic mobility as we’ve been led to believe.

Research has shown that workers tend to get stuck in the same socio-economic bracket as their parents — especially those on the bottom half of the income ladder. If you are born in an …

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Our electricity and oil aren’t cheap

WASHINGTON — You think gasoline is too expensive? Are you annoyed by the escalating price at the pump?

If so, you’ve joined legions of Americans, myself included, who have become accustomed to a lifestyle of easy and seemingly painless energy consumption. We believe that we have a God-given right to our fuel-hogging SUVs, two or three refrigerators per household (one in the garage for beer and grocery surplus) and old-fashioned light bulbs that generate as much heat as light. Isn’t there something in the Constitution that guarantees our right to most of the world’s energy resources?

You’d certainly think so to listen to the complaints that escalate right along with the price per barrel of petroleum. But the simple fact is that our energy consumption is a lot more costly than we acknowledge — measured not just in ghastly environmental disasters but also in the blood spilled by our soldiers.

A confluence of awful events — the slaughter of protestors in the Middle East and a …

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Japan’s technological limits — and ours

WASHINGTON — The disaster in Japan has taken on biblical proportions — an unfathomable three-fold catastrophe the likes of which has rarely been seen in recorded human history. Just as relief agencies struggled to cope with the twinned calamities of earthquake and tsunami, nuclear reactors started to malfunction, opening another front in the crisis.

The images are heart-rending and the scope of the tragedy nearly incomprehensible. I cannot imagine what it’s like to search, hope against hope, for loved ones missing since the earth shuddered and the sea rose up.

I have been struck not just by the scale of the human tragedy but also by the failures of essential technical systems set in place to minimize such disasters. In Haiti,

a wretchedly impoverished nation where neither government nor social services function well, it’s not so shocking that a 7.0 earthquake may have killed more than 300,000 people (by some estimates). But Japan, by contrast, is an industrialized nation awash …

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Westboro lunatics have rights, too

WASHINGTON — I can call President Obama a pipsqueak, an idiot, a pretender, a Marxist Mau Mau. I can describe Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts as a hack, a dummy or a liar. I can label former President George W. Bush a war criminal. I don’t believe any of those things, but our Jeffersonian democracy allows me to write or say or scream those characterizations without fear of official retribution.

That’s the liberty we celebrate in the First Amendment — an ironclad commitment to an individual’s right to speak freely; to worship as he pleases; to peacefully assemble to mourn, to protest, to march, to parade. In civics classes, freedom of speech is explained as the cornerstone of the citizen’s ability to confront his government.

Seldom do we reflect on the flip side of that great liberty: the protections extended to the loony and the hateful to parade about in public saying vicious and evil things. It’s a lot harder to embrace that cherished freedom when it is misused by …

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A nation of hypocrites on illegal immigration

WASHINGTON — As House Republicans searched for waste, fraud and abuse in the federal budget, they quickly learned that there isn’t enough dumb spending to put a major dent in the deficit. So they ended up sacrificing some of their own sacred cows, including money to police the borders.

Though conservatives frequently bash President Obama for failing to create a water-tight seal on the country’s southern edge, the tea-party-empowered House majority settled on cuts of around $600 million to border security and immigration enforcement. That’s $350 million less for border fencing and technology, as well as about 870 fewer border patrol agents, according to some estimates.

Those cuts may not withstand final negotiations, since several Democrats have complained about them. But “border security” is about as sensible a place to trim federal spending as any.

That highly-touted fence along the nearly-2000-mile border with Mexico, for example, costs nearly $4 million per mile but   is …

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Huckabee is as wrong as the birthers

Oh, goodness gracious. You know those zombie movies where the illness keeps spreading and pretty soon even some of the main characters have the plague?
Well, that’s pretty much what’s happening in the Republican Party, where birther/zombie madness is spreading. My colleague Jay Bookman has an excellent post about the Georgia House, which seems close to passing legislation that would demand Obama’s birth certificate if he is to appear on the ballot in 2012.

And now Mike Huckabee has caught an attendant form of the plague. He says, correctly, that Obama was born in the United States, but he believes, incorrectly, that Obama grew up in Kenya and, therefore, is not, you know, like us.

Via First Read, here’s a partial transcript of an interview Huckabee gave to a rightwing radio talk show host:

MALZBERG: Don’t you think it’s fair also to ask him – I know your stance on this – how come we don’t have a health record? We don’t have a college record? We don’t have a birth certif- why …

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Obama to GOP governors: Fix the health care law

For nearly a year — ever since the new health care legislation passed into law — Republicans have insisted they will “repeal and replace” it. But now that they are in power in the House, they’ve put a lot more emphasis on the repeal than on the replace.
Yesterday, though, President Obama played some very clever politics with governors convened for their winter meeting. The president challenged them to fix the health care law:

“I am aware that I have not yet convinced everybody here to be a member of the Affordable Care Act fan club. … I am not open to refighting the battles of the last two years,” Obama said. “I am willing to work with anyone in this room, Democrat or Republican, governors or members of Congress to make this law even better.”

From The NYT:

President Obama, who has stood by his landmark health care law through court attacks and legislative efforts to repeal it, told the nation’s governors on Monday that he was willing to amend the measure to give states the …

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