Tuesday, December 25, 2012

All I Want for Christmas is a Gun

This is not about the Second Amendment. Most Americans will never be convinced that the framers of the Constitution were thinking only about a militia when they wrote that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” So let’s stipulate that Americans have the right individually to bear arms.

On the other side, there is also no argument about whether the government may specify some kinds of weapons which Americans are not allowed to bear. Nobody is allowed to stockpile H-bombs in their garage. Surface-to-air missiles and poison gas are also illegal.

After the so-called St. Valentine’s Day massacre in 1929, in which sub-machine guns were used by some gangsters to kill other gangsters in Chicago, the federal government imposed strict restrictions on such guns in the National Firearms Act of 1934. Since then, fully automatic machine guns, standard issue for military purposes, have been hedged with considerable restrictions for private citizens, making them essentially illegal to buy and own. Nobody complains about that restriction on gun rights of American citizens, including the National Rifle Association. There is no conceivable non-military purpose for machine guns in a civilized society.

So we can also stipulate that the government has the right and responsibility to regulate the ownership of weapons which can kill many people quickly. The question is, exactly which weapons should be regulated?

That brings me to assault weapons, guns which are semi-automatic, meaning that after firing a round, they automatically eject the cartridge casing and load the next round. The shooter only needs to pull the trigger to shoot again, allowing for very rapid fire, about one bullet every 2 seconds. When a high capacity magazine is employed, which carries to the gun 20, 50, or even 100 bullets, a shooter with minimal training could easily fire 20 to 30 rounds per minute for several minutes.

For what civilian purpose is such a weapon appropriate?

People and organizations like the NRA who oppose restrictions on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines argue that Americans need such weapons for self-defense. Criminals have powerful guns, so we law-abiding citizens need the same kind of guns to defend ourselves from attack. How many news stories have you read about a victim of a home invasion or mugging or school shooting who successfully defended themselves with an assault weapon? Imagine the situation: a homeowner hears a strange noise downstairs and gets their assault weapon out of the locked cabinet where it is stored and then shoots the intruders. When these guns are used against people, the purpose is overwhelmingly offensive, not defensive.

Would banning assault weapons and large magazines make a difference? When Jared Loughner attacked Rep. Gabby Giffords in Tucson, killing 6 people and wounding 13 others, he was stopped when he had to reload his 9-millimeter semi-automatic pistol. A similar situation occurred in a Maryland school shooting. Baltimore County Police Chief Jim Johnson wants to ban high capacity magazines, because a teacher was able to tackle a student who was reloading a double-barreled shotgun in that incident. Police believe that Adam Lanza fired at least 30 shots at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, before having to reload.

Our security experts, the police forces across the country, are overwhelmingly in favor of banning assault weapons. Why don’t we do it? It is estimated that the NRA and other lobbyists against restrictions on guns spend thousands of times more money than those who want to limit guns. That is one reason, but not the only reason.

American culture, especially male culture, reveres guns. An American household is six times as likely as a Canadian household to own handguns. We kill more than 4 times as many people with firearms as all the other 30 highly industrialized countries put together.

The response of gun lovers to the massacre of children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School has been to buy and advocate for more guns. The NRA’s leader, Wayne LaPierre, suggested that armed guards be stationed at every school in the country. The same legislators who are cutting funds for education across the country are being exhorted by one of their biggest funding sources to appropriate money for 100,000 armed guards standing watch at our schools.

Meanwhile gun owners are on a gun buying spree, focused on assault weapons. Guns costing nearly $1000 are being purchased by men who worry that the reaction to Sandy Hook might be a revival of the ban on assault weapons which Congress refused to renew in 2004.

What does it mean to possess a weapon which can kill a crowd of people in seconds? I don’t know the answer. I have never owned a gun and don’t want one. I don’t think it defines my masculinity to be able to spray bullets all around me.

I would like to feel safer. But carrying a gun around won’t do that. Seeing men all around me carrying guns, or knowing that men at McDonalds, at the library, or at my school are carrying concealed weapons doesn’t make me feel safer.

Let’s ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines now.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published by the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 25, 2012

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Reading and Writing

In all the seat pockets of my Amtrak train to Chicago were glossy flyers advertising the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books and videos. That’s a marketing package any author would die for – links between books and videos advertised daily to thousands of potential customers. No wonder  Jeff Kinney has sold 75 million copies of his Wimpy Kid cartoon books.

I have looked through the Diary of a Wimpy Kid. The drawings are cute, but the idea is not original and I found the text uninteresting.

Diary is a book for our times: big print, easy to read in one hour, diverting but not challenging, leaving little trace afterwards. Maybe it means we have come one step closer to a future without books.

Books are an endangered species. Reading itself, as entertainment and education, has long since been replaced by more visually stimulating pastimes: television, video games, smart phones.

In the past 30 years writing has changed, too. First email, then texting and now Twitter have encouraged a transition from constructing paragraphs filling pages to throwing together short messages of acronyms and abbreviations, bullet points and emoticons. In such simplified communications, grammar, punctuation, and spelling are ignored, because they’re not needed.

Many of my students, whose entire schooling has come in the age of texting and Xbox, are no longer familiar with books. Reading one assigned book in a history course, much less half a dozen, is an unfamiliar and possibly painful chore. It can be difficult for them to maintain concentration on any text longer than a couple of pages.

With less reading comes poorer writing. For the first time in a long career of reading student prose, I am given papers by students who can’t distinguish between “where” and “were”. That’s also an error in pronunciation. Many students have difficulty reading complex sentences out loud, with little idea how to sound out unfamiliar words. Basic reading skills can no longer be assumed among college students.

This is not just the lament of a grumpy greybeard longing for the good old days. In one lifetime a cultural revolution has replaced the primacy of reading books with other mental pursuits. Like all previous generations whose time has come and gone, I could, and occasionally do, complain about the end of civilization. But more useful is to wonder how we should adapt to a possible book-free reality. When the most basic means of the transmission of  knowledge suddenly falls out of favor, what should educators do?

Librarians have been trying desperately to preserve the relevance of buildings created to hold and distribute books. Will those wonderful temples to popular reading created across America a century ago by Andrew Carnegie and many others, of which Jacksonville has a fine example, simply turn into computer rooms with unusually high ceilings?

Will e-books on Nooks delay the death of sustained reading? Should authors hire cartoonists to illustrate every page with drawings, because readers are no longer able or willing to translate long strings of words into visual images? How will we communicate complex ideas within a 140-character limit? Or will we all be too busy playing Madden football?

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 18, 2012

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Corporations Are Not People

My father created a corporation. He owned a very small business in New York City, helping manufacturers ship cartons of records overseas. Sometimes he had one employee. He started the business the year I was born, and called it Steven Shipping Company. A few years later he incorporated.

That corporation was a person, my father, and nobody else. But many corporations are enormous. Twenty American corporations had annual sales over $100 billion in 2011, and 479 earned revenues over $5 billion. In August 2011, Mitt Romney said, “Corporations are people”. Should these giants be considered to be “people”?

The treatment of corporations as equivalent to persons has a long history. One of the earliest Supreme Court decisions, “Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward” in 1819, affirmed the right of corporations to make contracts, as people did. In 1830, Chief Justice Marshall stated, “The great object of an incorporation is to bestow the character and properties of individuality on a collective and changing body of men.” The equal protection and due process clauses of the 14th Amendment, adopted in 1868, were designed to insure that African Americans enjoyed equal rights. Soon they were applied to corporations.

The 2012 elections were heavily influenced by the 2010 Supreme Court decision in “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission”, which ruled that corporate political spending is protected, because corporations also have a First Amendment right to free speech. That removal of traditional restrictions on corporate political advertising ensured that spending in 2012 far exceeded all previous elections.

But corporations do not act like people. They are created to make money. Their goal is to increase the bottom line. No human being is so narrowly focused. In exchange for our rights we have responsibilities to our fellow citizens and to our society. People who only care about how many dollars they can collect make poor citizens. Justice John Paul Stevens’ dissent in “Citizens United” argued that because corporations have no purpose outside of profit-making, they, unlike people, have no morality and no loyalty.

The Declaration of Independence assures “certain inalienable rights” to people. The Constitution specifies those rights for American citizens. Corporations are not mentioned. It is more than ironic that the same conservative justices who claim that they make decisions based on the framers’ “original intent” wish to give human rights to corporate entities that the framers could not have imagined. That decision, among many others, demonstrates that “original intent” is a convenient justification, which is applied here and ignored there, in order to reach preconceived decisions.

Corporations are not people, but a small number of people do control huge corporations. The political contributions made by giant corporations do not represent collective decisions of their workers or stockholders. A few top executives use corporate funds, which they control but do not own, to try to influence elections. The problem with treating corporations as people for the purpose of political speech is that it provides another opportunity for rich and powerful corporate executives to magnify their speech with money which belongs to others. Because winning elections depends on getting one’s message out through expensive media, rich people already have outsized influence over politicians of both parties. President Obama, like every recent President, gave plum federal appointments to supporters whose main qualification was their ability to raise money for his campaign.

Reversing the “Citizens United” decision with a law or an amendment to the Constitution may not be an appropriate way to deal with the outsized role of money in American elections. But corporations must be regulated by government. We have learned that lesson over and over again, most recently in the financial collapse caused by a small number of extraordinarily greedy corporate executives with no social conscience or other traits which would qualify them as “people”.

If corporations have the right to political speech, they ought also to have the social responsibilities of people – to look out for our neighbors, to preserve our communities, to pay a fair share of taxes for the services we receive. Those who argue for the rights of corporations as people should also explain how we can ensure that corporations act like good citizens.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 11, 2012

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Red State, Blue State

I just spent a weekend in Charleston, South Carolina, giving a talk about my research on Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany who spent the war in Shanghai. I was barely a mile from Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began. South Carolina is one of the reddest states, giving 55% of its votes to Romney. Now I’m back at home in Illinois, one of the bluer states, so safe for Democrats that Obama did not even campaign in his home state. Red state, blue state – what’s the difference?

If you widen your concern past elections, not much. The people I met in Charleston were happy about their unseasonably warm weather, over 60 degrees in early December, with flowers still blooming. On Saturday evening, my hosts took me to two neighborhood parties. Conversation revolved around local gossip, prospects for golf, and professional football at one party, and a more academic set of topics at the other. I met filmmakers and teachers, housewives and retirees, businesspeople and lawyers. People kicked back with mulled wine and chili, apple pie and beer, cheese and crackers. Except for the southern drawl, it would have been hard to tell that I was not home in Jacksonville or anywhere else in these United States.

Lately we have been inundated with political campaigning and reporting. Now that the election is over, stories about the heated negotiations over the “fiscal cliff” and other party political arguments dominate the news. Anyone who tried to understand our nation from the outside through the media might think that the Civil War, portrayed so briefly but gruesomely at the beginning of the fine new film “Lincoln”, was still going on: south against north, both coasts against the middle, cities against countryside, red against blue.

It’s not true. Americans in South Carolina and Illinois are thinking about the same things as Americans across the country. And most of those things have little to do with politics.

Certainly politics plays a role in nearly every area of life. The funding of Medicare will affect my mother’s financial future and my own. Moving the Social Security retirement age up a year or two would force millions of Americans to work a little longer than they planned. Home mortgages, school funding, and tax rates will impact our checkbooks. Infrastructure investment and defense spending, not to mention dealing with the enormous debts of Illinois, and the even more enormous debts of the federal government, will have long-term effects on employment and interest rates. There is much reason to care about which party wins elections.

But the differences between the parties fade into the background when we face the real issues in our daily lives. How are our children doing? Are our parents healthy? Who is going to rake the leaves? Did our team win? What do we have to do at work this week? Have we bought Christmas presents for everyone on our list? What’s for dinner?

On the airplane back to St. Louis, I met an oil and gas man from Oklahoma. I’m pretty sure he voted for Romney, because he said that Obama’s policies were not good for the oil and gas industry. We had plenty to talk about: where we were going and why; the Chicago Bears’ loss in overtime; the drought in the Midwest; chasing tornadoes; fantasy football; our mutual interest in history. I learned quite a bit about the obstacles to the wider production of electricity from wind power. We didn’t exchange names until we landed, but we made a connection that transcended any political differences. When we shook hands, what mattered was that we were interested in hearing each other talk about things we knew, were respectful of the other’s opinions, and realized we liked each other right away.

If you listen too much to political talk, you might come to believe that half of America thinks the other half is stupid, evil, and corrupt. But the few people who are signing petitions to secede from the US are the same ranters who call everyone else traitors, who don’t let facts get in the way of their opinions, and who keep trying to convince some Americans to hate other Americans.

Let them form their own country. Soon they’ll all hate each other. We can then continue to find the good and true things that unite us as Americans.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 4, 2012

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Givers, Takers and Voters

            In May, Mitt Romney told an audience of big donors in Florida that 47% of Americans would vote for President Obama because they pay no income tax, are dependent on government, believe they are victims, and feel “entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.” Romney said these people are hopeless: “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” When a video of this speech was made public in September, Romney stood by his remarks. After he lost the election, he repeated this claim by attributing his defeat to the big “gifts” that Democrats had given and promised to “the African-American community, the Hispanic community and young people.”

             A number of other unhappy Republicans made similar claims after the election. At the Republican governors conference two weeks ago, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal vehemently disagreed: “I absolutely reject that notion.”

            Since Romney’s 47% remarks became public, many writers have demonstrated how wrong those claims were. Many of the 47% who pay no federal income tax do pay state income tax. Many others pay other forms of taxes, such as property tax and payroll tax. A significant portion of the 47% are retirees, who are receiving Social Security on which they pay no income taxes, but which represents their own prior payments when they were working.

            Of course, the idea that anyone who currently pays no federal income tax is therefore irresponsible, hopelessly dependent on government, and feels entitled to be supported by other Americans is a remarkable insult to millions of Americans who happen to have low incomes.

            But what about the claim that they all voted for Obama? That’s worth investigating.

            Romney was correct that poorer voters broke against him. The Fox News exit polls showed that Obama won 63% of voters with family incomes under $30,000, and 57% with family incomes between $30,000 and $50,000.

            But among those who pay no federal income taxes because they are recipients of Social Security, Romney did quite well. In the age group over 65, who comprised 16% of the electorate, Romney won by a margin of 56% to 44%.

            A closer look at county-level data reveals a much more complex pattern. If we consider all the benefit dollars that the federal government hands out, it turns out that Mitt Romney’s electoral theory is far from the truth. Romney overwhelmingly won many of the counties whose residents receive the greatest share of government benefits like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and income support, thus the poorest sections of the country. A few examples are instructive. In McDowell County, West Virginia, 48% of all income comes from government benefits, to the tune of over $12,000 per person (these data are from 2009). Romney won 64% of their votes. Residents of Owsley County, Kentucky, receive 53% of their income from government benefits, over $13,800 each; Romney won the county 81% to 19%. In Ripley County, Missouri, and Scott County, Tennessee, over 40% of income is in federal benefits, and Romney won more than 70% of their votes.

            Mitt Romney did very well in some other sections of the country where incomes are very low and government payments are very high, such as the northern part of lower Michigan and southern Oregon. This certainly doesn’t fit with Romney’s 47% claims from May.

            Why did these very poor regions vote Republican? The answer is simple: they are overwhelmingly white. McDowell County, which gave Romney the fewest votes among those I mentioned above, is 89% non-Hispanic white. Owsley, Ripley and Scott counties are at least 96% non-Hispanic white and gave over 70% of their votes to Romney.

            When Mitt Romney insulted poor people who receive government payments, he was speaking of many of his own voters. But after the election, Romney was much clearer about which voters he meant to insult by saying that government payments had bought their votes. His comments two weeks ago singled out blacks and Hispanics as having been given “big gifts”. He didn’t mention that the poor whites who voted for him receive identical gifts.

            So we end up with the same racial profiling that conservatives have been using to win votes since Richard Nixon’s southern strategy. The euphemisms change, but the intent is the same. Tell whites that the Democrats are pandering to minorities, that their hard-earned dollars are being given away to undeserving moochers of other races, that real Americans need to take back our country from the colored masses who threaten us.

            This seems to work only in states with significant minority populations. Charles Blow, who writes for the New York Times, pointed out recently that Obama won the white vote in states where the minority populations are small, such as Iowa, Maine and New Hampshire. In Mississippi, where the black population is the largest (36%), he won only 10% of whites.

            America is still a long way from being a post-racial nation.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 27, 2012

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Tradition and Change at Thanksgiving

My mother and my mother-in-law are both coming to Thanksgiving at our house. So is my sister-in-law. And my daughter.

Three generations at Thanksgiving is an American tradition, immortalized in Norman Rockwell paintings and millions of family photos. But it used to be easier to bring the generations together at the Thanksgiving table than it is now. In the middle of the 20th century, about one quarter of Americans lived in multi-generational households, but that proportion has been shrinking since then. The geographic movement of Americans west and south, both in retirement and for employment, has spread many families across the continent. Can the Thanksgiving tradition survive modern, highly mobile American life?

To put together this Thanksgiving gathering, my daughter is flying in from Massachusetts and my mother-in-law is driving from Minneapolis, with the help of her daughter. My mother used to live in California, but came to live here in Jacksonville when my father died. The geographical mobility of Americans across our vast continent makes such family gatherings more costly, difficult and rare.

When I grew up near New York City, both sets of my grandparents lived within a two-hour drive, and my cousins lived around the corner. Most of my extended family lived in the New York metropolitan area. Now we are spread across the country, making family gatherings for holidays less frequent.

Even though family holidays seem like unchanging traditions, in fact they evolve as the cast of characters changes. Children grow up and for a few years bring partners to the family meals. Eventually they make their declaration of independence and become the hosts, often blending traditions they like from their families of origin with new ideas. The oldest generation gives up its leading role to a middle-aged child, reserving the right to grumble when recipes are changed or new dishes are added.

Each Thanksgiving is unique. This time, we will miss the grandfathers. My father-in-law can no longer travel and rarely leaves his nursing home. My son will celebrate with his in-laws. My other sister-in-law hosts her own Thanksgiving for her children in Minneapolis.

So our table of six will be thankful for this occasion to celebrate together. My daughter will bring stories of her work, where she is taking on new challenges and responsibilities, discovering what she can do and what she needs to learn. My sister-in-law is preparing to return to apartment living, after 35 years of home ownership. My mother-in-law has gradually been getting used to living alone, taking courses at the local university, developing a new life. My mother has a new home at Jacksonville Skilled Nursing and new people who surround her.

My wife is thinking about working for a new boss, as Illinois College makes the transition to its 14th President. I am about to teach for the last time a course I have taught a dozen times before, as my career in academia approaches its end.

Maybe because it happens slowly, we don’t notice how often we must recreate our habits, our daily routines. Jobs change, neighbors move, and the great events of family life add and subtract loved ones from our lives.

We all have much to wonder about. The future is unpredictable. Maybe that’s why we cherish the familiarity of Thanksgiving dinners. I’ll be happy to see the creamed onions and the homemade cranberry sauce. I’ll be even happier to hear what my family says, as we go around the table, telling each other what we are thankful for. In the midst of constant change, the love of family is something we can rely on. Like turkey and stuffing.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 20, 2012

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Shape of Politics to Come

All year the Republicans made gleeful fun of President Obama’s “hope and change” mantra from 2008. That didn’t work.

It looks like Democrats will have much more hope in their political future than Republicans, because of changes in the American electorate. The Democratic victory last Tuesday goes beyond the President. Democrats won 2 more seats in the Senate and probably 7 more House seats, notably 4 in Illinois. Democrats took over 5 formerly Republican state houses and 4 state senates, while only 1 house and 2 senates switched the other way.

When the American population is grouped into demographic categories, the Republicans depend on shrinking sub-populations. Most significantly, the white Christian share of the electorate, who voted for Romney about 2 to 1, has dropped from 66% in 2000 to 57% in 2012. That group is shrinking on all sides, the ethnic and the religious.

Hispanics as a percentage of voters have grown from 2% in 1992 to 10% this year. More than 60% have voted Democratic since 1984, except for 2004, when they just dipped to 58%. Obama won 71% of Hispanic voters. Latinos increased their presence in the House from 24 to 28 and in the Senate from 2 to 3.

Voters of Asian background make up only 3% of the nation’s voters, but they too are both growing and becoming more Democratic, voting at least 70% for Obama. Their influence is concentrated in the Pacific states: in California, their proportion of the electorate grew from 6% in 2008 to 11% this year. Their presence in the new Congress will also be unprecedented.

Since 2000, the proportion of voters not Christian or Jewish, or who are unaffiliated, has grown from 15% to 19%. Mazie Horono will be the first Buddhist senator, and Tulsi Gabbard will be the first Hindu in Congress, both from Hawaii. They join an increasingly diverse Congress, including Keith Ellison from Minnesota and Andre Carson from Indiana, both Muslim representatives, and Hark Johnson from Georgia, a Buddhist representative. All of these members of Congress are Democrats.

Voters from ages 18 to 29 represented 19% of all those who voted on Tuesday, according to the exit poll conducted by Edison Research. That's an increase of one percentage point from 2008. Obama captured 60% of them, compared with Mitt Romney's 36%. Although people do tend to become more conservative as they get older, an entire generation is becoming used to voting Democratic.

Voters also demonstrated that basic Republican positions are losing support. The Republican position on gay marriage repels more and more voters. Since the 1990s, the percentage of Americans who favor gay marriage has grown from one-quarter of the electorate to half this year. Last week, ballot measures legalizing same sex marriage were approved in Maine, Maryland and Washington. In Minnesota voters decided not to add a prohibition of same-sex marriage to the state’s constitution. Across the country, exit polling showed that 49% of voters said their state should legally recognize same-sex marriage, and 46% said it should not.

Even in the South, the only region where a majority opposes gay marriage, that proportion has been steadily shrinking. Every age group has been increasing its support for gay marriage, and those born before 1945, who are the most opposed, are being replaced every day by voters under 30, who overwhelmingly support it.

Exit polling showed other major issues where Republican ideology has fallen out of favor. A poll by Democracy Corps and the Campaign for America's Future showed that 70% support raising taxes on top earners, while keeping the taxes of others at the same level. Two-thirds of those polled said that any plan would be “unacceptable” if it did not raise taxes on the rich, if it continued to tax capital gains at a lower rate than wages, or if it lowered taxes on corporations.

In a different exit poll, 65% said most illegal immigrants working in the United States should be offered a chance to apply for legal status.

But here’s a hopeful note for the future. Perhaps Republicans will realize that they might be able to increase the size of one of their reliable voting blocs. As is usually the case in presidential elections, those with incomes over $50,000 voted Republican. If the Republicans did not so flagrantly place themselves in the lap of the very wealthy, if they respected the significance of good middle-class jobs in both the public and private sectors, if they developed policies which made it more likely that middle-income Americans could get good health insurance, good mortgages, and good educations, they might help the American economy and their future political prospects.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 13, 2012

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Primer 2012: 24: At Last, It’s Over

Since the first Republican primary debate in May 2011, we have endured 18 months of constant campaigning. Perhaps this campaign actually began earlier, in October 2010, when Mitch McConnell said, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

Presidential campaigns in the US last far longer than in other democracies. Spending here is vastly greater. What do we citizens get out of it?

We get repetition. Obama and Romney boiled down their political visions into a few bite-sized slogans, which they repeated a thousand times. Even in their debates, they fell back on slogans, instead of explanations. Over the final months of this campaign we learned very little new about either candidate.

We get polls. The media devotes far too much money and column inches and screen time to constant polling. The Pew Research Center calculated that only 22% of news coverage concerned the candidates’ policy positions in the last 2 months. Instead we get poll after poll telling us how other people might vote in the future. Nate Silver, whose 538 website provides the most interesting daily commentary on the polls, wrote last week that the polls just before the election looked like the polls in June. After four months of relentless campaigning, hundred of millions of dollars in ads, and four debates, few voters have changed their minds.

We don’t get what we need to know about the candidates. They tell us what makes them look good. Occasionally we get a peek behind the scenes, in unguarded moments, when candidates say what they really believe. Still it’s all talk.

Only in real life can we get the information we need to make good judgments about candidates and policies. “Superstorm” Sandy gave us a frightful dose of real life. The East Coast, where I lived most of my life, and New York, where I grew up, were hit hard. Like the people in Joplin, Missouri, in New Orleans, and everywhere else where freakishly destructive weather wreaks havoc on human life, the Easterners will recover and rebuild. They will look out for each other as much as they can. They will be thankful for the prompt and professional help of charitable organizations.

And they will look to governments to do the rest. Local governments are the first line of public defense, but they are still trying to get the water out of their offices. The power, resources, and reach of state governments and especially the federal government have been crucial in saving lives, limiting damage, moving supplies in and water out, and restoring transport and commercial life. The photos of President Obama and Governor Christie together on the ground and in the air represent the response to disaster that a modern democratic nation must provide.

Now we see clearly what this campaign has been about. The Republican budget plan, authored by Paul Ryan, envisions drastic cuts in the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and in other agencies like it. Mitt Romney wants the federal government out of the business of disaster relief. His philosophy says private enterprise can do everything better, so in the June 2011 Republican debate he specifically said about FEMA: “Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.” Moderator John King asked once more if Romney was referring to “disaster relief”. Romney said, “We cannot afford to do these things without jeopardizing the future for our kids.”

George Bush put a hack in charge of FEMA. Romney wants to make public disaster relief into an opportunity for investors to make money.

Those opportunities will increase in the future. Although Republicans continue to put politics above science, a growing majority of climate scientists believe that global warming is increasing the frequency of extreme weather events. Capitalists agree: the giant German reinsurance company Munich Re issued a report in October titled “Severe Weather in North America”. It said that global warming “particularly affects formation of heat waves, droughts, intense precipitation events, and in the long run most probably also tropical cyclone intensity.”

Republican policy will mean relief for profit, outside of public control, in a new age of deadly storms. Democratic policy will mean strong public control of relief combined with an effort to slow down global warming.

Which did you vote for?

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 6, 2012

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Election Primer 2012: 23: Seeking the Best Voting System

A local voting controversy is brewing in my Midwestern hometown. Although our city council is elected in wards, as is true across the country, the 7 members of the school board are all elected at-large. One of the inevitable results of such at-large voting is that the poorer sections of town are under-represented or unrepresented. A group of local activists, Save Our Schools, is trying to put a different proposal before the voters: electing the school board by districts, insuring that every ward is directly represented.

These are two competing versions of democratic voting. Our Constitution enshrines both into the elections for Congress. Members of the House of Representatives are elected in districts within states, while Senators have been elected at-large in the states since the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913.

The argument for replacing at-large with district-by-district voting for our local school board is strong. It takes much greater resources to run an at-large campaign in our whole school district of 27,000 people, than in one ward of about 4,000. At-large elections thus typically result in the election of candidates from the wealthier sections of a city. Where there are significant minority populations, at-large elections make it harder for minority candidates to win. For this reason, many southern municipalities switched to at-large voting in the wake of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as a way of maintaining white control in places with large black populations.

The bias in at-large voting has been demonstrated here in Illinois. In 1987, Springfield changed its city council from at-large to districts due to a voting rights lawsuit: the first African-American councillor since 1911 was then elected. When Danville eliminated their at-large seats in the same year, their 120-year history of electing only white men was ended. Since then 5 African-Americans, a Latino, a Native American, and 8 women have been elected. There have been only two minority members of the Jacksonville school board over the past 20 years.

The current school board has no members from the eastern and poorer half of the city. Recently the school board voted to close an elementary school in the east, without any voting members who live in that neighborhood. The unrepresentativeness of the board may contribute to the lack of interest in its work. Under 20% of registered voters participate in school board elections. Recently the board proposed a county-wide sales tax to fund the schools, replacing state and federal funds which have been cut. The measure was soundly defeated.

Our local voting controversy is about how to best represent our citizens. Across the US much more serious voting controversies have erupted this election season, because there are some attempts to make it more difficult for some voters to participate.

In Florida a majority of voters vote early. Yet the Republican state government reduced the number of days of early voting from 14 to 8 after Obama succeeded in turning out huge numbers of early black voters in 2008. In particular the Sunday before Election Tuesday was eliminated, after 2008's “Souls to the Polls” campaign brought African Americans directly from church to the polls. Similar reductions in early voting were implemented in Ohio by a Republican state government. A different means of voter suppression was attempted by Republicans in Maine, who passed a law in 2011 ending the practice of allowing registration on Election Day. Voters in Maine then repealed this law.

These are genuine efforts to make it more difficult for potential Democratic voters to vote. Here in Jacksonville the issue is how best to represent all voters equally. A thorough discussion of the merits of ward-based voting for the school board, and then a citywide vote on the issue would be the most democratic way to decide what form of democracy was best. The school board could decide to put this question on the ballot. But when it was brought up to them, they declined to take it seriously. The other means to bring the issue up is to get 5% of local voters to sign a petition to get the proposition on the next ballot.

A school board which represented the whole city would put this question on its own agenda for open discussion. It might mean that some current board members would eventually lose their seats, but the board as whole would be more representative of every neighborhood, and thus more able to rally voters to offer more financial support.

There is not just one way to create democracy. Even when everybody gets to vote, certain types of voting systems can make it more difficult for poor or minority populations to be involved, to have a voice in governance. We should seek not merely democracy, but the best possible democracy.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 1, 2012

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Election Primer 2012: 22. Why the Democrats Will Win This Election

Next Tuesday, Obama will win. The unemployment rate will still be nearly 8%. The housing market and the construction industry will still be depressed. A record number of people will still need food stamps to feed their families. An unpopular war will still be killing Americans.
Even though he’s black and intellectual, and some people still say he was born in Africa, Obama will beat a blue-blood son born into politics and wealth. He’ll beat billions of billionaire dollars poured over the past four years into an unending campaign of vilification of himself and his policies, and then unleashed in unfathomable amounts during this election, with the blessing of a Supreme Court appointed by Republicans. He’ll defeat an unprecedented congressional campaign of intransigence and obstruction led by a coalition of party leaders and Tea Party newcomers.

How did he manage that? Barack Obama deserves much credit for his first four years as President. Eight years of Republican control of domestic and foreign policy had left the United States in its worst shape since the combined oil crisis, stock-market crash, and Vietnam defeat back in the early 1970s. Two wars raging with no end in sight, an economy beginning to free-fall into an almost great depression, and worldwide opinion horrified at the arrogance, dishonesty and incompetence of American foreign policy.

Each of these crises had taken years to develop. Now all three have been reversed. In two years we will no longer be fighting in the Middle East. The economy is recovering, not as fast as anyone would like, but the last great depression took a decade to recover from. Our standing in the world has rarely been higher – our few enemies are everyone’s enemies.

But I don’t think Obama’s successes will be the deciding factor in this election. It’s Republican failures.

I don’t mean the Republicans I see every day in my small town in central Illinois. There are plenty of them, enough to dominate local elected offices. They are normal people who advocate normal policies. When the state government tried to shut down a historic facility for the mentally ill with which Jacksonville has identified for over 150 years, our local legislators, all Republicans, have pushed back. Although such closings are precisely what would happen everywhere if the congressional Republican budget were passed, here they have fought for the well-being of the patients, the employment of the staff, and the spirit of the town, even if it costs more.

A series of Republican mayors backed by a Republican city council have spent millions and asked the federal government for millions more to make the downtown work again, investing now in our collective future.

My local Republicans are nothing like the cartoon Republicans who have dominated our TV screens for over a year. Their extreme ideology is the big loser. American public opinion has moved on, past gay-bashing, past shoot-first, think-later foreign policy, past the condescending racism of self-deportation, past conspiracy theories about socialists and scientists, past the tried-and-true Republican political tactics of the 20th century.

When someone stands up at a party and says that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by evil scientists or that gays will go to hell or that a woman must deliver her rapist’s baby, people start edging away. The cartoon Republicans haven’t grasped that yet.

The blind wrath that brought a few Tea Party zealots into federal and state offices in 2010 is gone. The economy is getting better. The angry men in Congress and in governors’ houses have accomplished nothing but get other people angry.

Mitt Romney has tried hard to erase the cartoon image he created for himself, in order to defeat the wacky line-up of extremists he faced in the primaries. He almost made it, replacing the “severe conservative” persona he has been working on since 2007 with a reasonable Romney in the last few months. In this final week, I expect him to lurch again in some direction, either to the middle to win some undecided voters or to the right to energize the extremists.

But why vote for a man who just reentered the real world from far right Fantasyland since the Republican convention in August, when the other man on the ballot had been struggling with real-world problems for the past four years with some success?

Obama’s victory is not Romney’s personal failure. The country is moving away from the extreme form of Republican conservatism which has come to dominate the party since Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

Obama’s victory in 2008 meant only that the failures of Republicans under Bush were too obvious to ignore. Now, despite the continuing economic disaster, despite lingering racism across white America, despite the daily uncertainties of the world outside our borders, Barack Obama wins again. His victory in 2012 means that Republican ideology is a failure.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 30, 2012

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Election Primer 2012: 21. Ideology and Politics

The ideological differences between Democrats and Republicans are deeper now than at any time I can remember.

Everybody has their own political ideology, created from life experiences, family traditions, and personal beliefs. Although pollsters, journalists and academics like to group people into a few simple categories, the variety of such political belief systems is unlimited.

For that reason, political parties usually include a wide range of political positions. Although the job of party leaders in Congress is to convince every member to vote the same way on legislation, strictly party line votes are rare. When the House approved the North American Free Trade Act in 1993 under President Bill Clinton, about 40% of Democrats voted for it and 25% of Republicans voted against it. In the Senate, Democrats split right down the middle for and against. The voting was similarly split for the U.S.-China Relations Act of 2000. Even the Senate vote to impeach Clinton showed the Republicans divided: one-sixth voted not to impeach.

Under President George W. Bush, there were many such divided votes. His signature education legislation, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, attracted more Democratic than Republican votes in the House, where one-sixth of Republicans voted against it. Late in his presidency, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 was written by a bipartisan group of Senators, but eventually failed because of a Republican filibuster. In the key cloture vote, about one-third of Democrats sided with two-thirds of Republicans to kill it.

Not all votes showed such crossing of the party lines. Clinton’s Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 passed Congress without a single Republican vote.

Since Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, the Republican Party has become more ideologically uniform. Obama’s first piece of legislation, the Lilly Ledbetter Act of 2009, allowing women to more easily sue for equal pay, passed the House with only 2 Republican votes. No House Republicans voted for the Stimulus Act in early 2009. In 2010, only 5 Republicans voted to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. The most controversial piece of legislation under President Obama, the Affordable Care Act, received only one Republican vote in the House and one in the Senate, even though Massachusetts Republicans had supported a nearly identical bill when Mitt Romney was Governor.

The Democratic Party continues to include a wide variety of political positions on every possible issue.

Considerable pressure has been brought on Republicans at the federal level to make ideological promises which exclude political compromise. The most notable is the Taxpayer Protection Pledge not to raise taxes ever on anyone, promoted by Grover Norquist. As of May 2011, all but 7 Republican Representatives and 7 Republican Senators had signed on, as well as other leading Republicans, including Romney and Paul Ryan. When the many Republican primary candidates for President were asked during a debate in August 2011 whether they would accept a hypothetical legislative compromise that included $1 in tax increases for every $10 in spending cuts, they all said no.

The increasing ideological purity of the Republican Party at the national level has pushed moderates away. Senator Olympia Snowe from Maine, one of the Tax Pledge non-signers, announced this year that she would not seek a fourth term. She cited the “dysfunction and political polarization” of the Senate, and in particular, “the overly rigid language on abortion in the GOP platform”. Another Republican non-signer, Rep. Richard Hanna from New York, complained about being “frustrated by how much we — I mean the Republican Party — are willing to give deferential treatment to our extremes”.

Republicans considered too likely to make compromises with Democrats have been challenged by more conservative candidates in primaries. John McCain, who had worked in bipartisan fashion more than most Republicans, survived such a challenge in 2010. Senator Richard Lugar from Indiana was defeated this year by Richard Mourdock.

Yet the ideological purity of the national Republican Party is not reflective of their own voters. Two polls in August showed that one-third of Republican voters believe the rich should pay more in taxes, and nearly one-third believe that abortion should be permitted beyond just cases of rape, incest, or to save a woman’s life.

The ideological purification of the Republican Party led Mitt Romney to reject his long moderate history on issues of abortion, climate change, health insurance, and taxes, in favor of ideological commitments to “severe conservatism”. Since his nomination, Romney has been veering back to the center.

But the problem for voters is not whether Romney is a flip-flopper, or whether he has any ideological commitments at all. With virtually all national Republican politicians rejecting any possibility of compromise on key issues, the gridlock in Congress, which has caused its approval rating to stay below 15% for the past year, will continue. Rigid adherence to ideology makes practical politics impossible.

What is practical politics? In a candidates’ debate for local office, I recently heard a Republican incumbent say that the biggest problem was insufficient revenue to accomplish what needed to be done. That was an honest, frank, and hopelessly non-ideological statement.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 23, 2012

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Election Primer 2012: 20. Truth in Advertising

    I am writing this on Tuesday night, right after the second presidential debate. So this will be just a first impression.

    Two weeks ago, Mitt Romney was judged by most commentators to have been successful in the first debate. Since then his poll numbers have gone up, nearly reaching parity with President Obama. So Romney tried to do the same thing in this debate – engage Obama directly, look energetic and glad to be in front of the TV cameras, repeat the talking points he has developed over the past few months.

    Obama has been heavily criticized for his performance two weeks ago, so he came out much more aggressively, looking into the camera more, smiling occasionally, and being much more directly critical of Romney’s positions and his words. The debate format, which encouraged the candidates to walk around rather than stand behind a podium, worked in favor of a more energetic Obama.

    Right after the first debate the TV talking heads discussed each candidate’s “performance”. How much energy did they display? Who had the best lines? Who looked more comfortable?

    Missing was any serious attention to what Romney and Obama actually said. Unlike campaign rallies, speeches to donors, or interviews with friendly journalists, in the debate candidates lose control of the dialogue. They are contradicted and called untruthful. Evidence they don’t want to deal with is thrown in their faces. The unique town hall format of Tuesday’s debate introduced even more uncertainty, because voters asked their own questions.

    Much more important than the debaters’ demeanor is what they say. Instead of focusing on the way the candidates looked in the first debate, the highly paid commentators should have analyzed substance. It was important that Romney repeated his charge that Obamacare will reduce medical benefits paid to Americans by $716 billion, even though independent fact-checkers have shown that to be untruthful months ago. It was important that Obama insisted that Romney was proposing a $5 trillion tax cut, when Romney had been saying for months that he seeks tax reform that is revenue neutral.

    So what did Obama and Romney say in this debate that is worth paying attention to? What did the candidates say that could help a voter choose between the differing policy visions of Democrats and Republicans?

    I think the many untruthful claims that Romney made were the most notable feature of this debate, because he got called out on most of them.

    Romney’s first statement was that he would “make sure we keep our Pell grant program going”. But he means, according to his published education plan, to “refocus Pell Grant dollars on the students that need them most”, which means cutting. Paul Ryan’s House budget would severely cut the Pell grant program. Obama has increased the total money in Pell grants, and intends to continue that support.

    When Romney said that Obama and his administration did not call the attack on the Benghazi consulate an act of terrorism for “many days”, Obama corrected him, noting he had said it was terrorism the very next day. Romney refused to believe that, but Candy Crowley, the strong moderator, assured use that this was true.

    In answer to a question about getting assault rifles off the streets, Romney said that assault rifles were already illegal, which is not true. Then he said he would oppose any new gun legislation. Obama was somewhat vague, but said he supported a ban on assault weapons.

    Romney said that health insurance premiums have gone up $2500, but the Labor Department says that the average American household pays about $270 more.

    Romney said that the program “Fast and Furious” gave guns “to people that ultimately gave them to drug lords”. But no guns were given at all. Government agents allowed guns to be bought without intervening, a terrible idea, but not at all what Romney claimed.

    Romney said he didn’t support the harsh new Arizona immigration laws, but his immigration advisor wrote them.

    Romney said that oil “production on government land is down”, as an attempt to paint Obama as insincere about increasing production. But in fact oil production on government land has increased since 2011. All Romney could point to was that oil and gas leases have been reduced under Obama, which the President succinctly explained as terminating leases that were not being used at all.

    I counted at least eight times that Romney said, “I know what it takes” to balance budgets, to create jobs to make our economy work. Maybe, but he hasn’t told the truth to us about how that might work. He avoided saying how he would deal with the long-term unemployed, although Republicans in Congress voted against extending their unemployment payments. He offered nothing to a woman who asked about gender inequality in pay, although Republicans voted against the Lilly Ledbetter Act to help women equalize pay.

    Forget how they looked or whether they were aggressive enough. What they said and didn’t say was the crucial thing. Romney was unable to present his ideas without being misleading or untruthful. That’s significant.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 18, 2012

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Election Primer 2012: 19. Individuals and Collectives

    I met Justin at the track early the other morning. Whenever I’m there, he is running hard. I asked him what sport he was training for. Justin said he wasn’t doing it for a team, his effort was for his own “personal benefit”. I respect his motives and admire his drive for individual improvement.

    Other efforts toward personal benefit are not so worthy. Bernie Madoff in New York, Allen Stanford in Antigua, Tom Petters in Minnesota, and Gerald Payne of Greater Ministries International are just a few of the high-flying criminals who enriched themselves by robbing others of personal benefits.

    More characteristic of our age are the financial wizards who took wild risks with millions, even billions, of other people’s dollars, like Angelo Mozilo of Countryside Financial, or the many executives of Goldman Sachs. They often win these gambles and enrich themselves with unimaginable sums of money. But they often lose, too. Then they take home a bit less, while the fortunes of thousands of others disappear. A few are so careless that they end up in jail, but most of these seekers after personal benefits just walk away from the scene of the crime. Mozilo had to pay back $67.5 million to settle SEC charges that he misled mortgage buyers. But he had pocketed over $400 million playing with others’ money, and he admitted no guilt.

    The individualist quest for personal benefit is not in itself admirable. Individualism must be judged by its relation to the collective or it is just selfishness. How does one person’s drive for personal benefit affect others? We might think differently about Justin’s workouts if he neglected parental responsibilities in order to stay fit.

    Conservatives have tried to make “collective” a dirty word. Anyone who thinks about the collective good must believe in “collectivism”,  meaning the tyranny of the masses, loss of freedom, the Soviet collective farm model. That attitude might be upsetting to those Americans who have banded together in collectives during our history, from volunteer fire fighters to dairy farmers to union workers to religious congregations.   

    The person who does not belong to some group engaged in collective action is rare and often lonely. Disdain for people pursuing a worthy goal, just because they pool their ideas, time, and money into a collective, is silly.

    Collectives can become tyrannical. Some are designed to be dictatorial, as in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Some begin with democracy, idealism and familial intimacy, but eventually decline into hierarchy and even criminality, like some labor unions in the 20th century. In those cases, the few who benefitted ignored the collective welfare of the collective.

    Collectives are living organisms. Some disappear, as their members go their separate ways. Others endure for generations or centuries by preserving the allegiance to each other that motivates the sacrifice of personal benefit for the collective good.

    The presidential candidates only address the conflict between individualism and collective welfare to defend themselves from attack. Republicans say that liberal policies, like the Affordable Care Act, and liberals like Obama, are socialist, meaning too collective. Democrats say that conservative policies, like cutting taxes on the wealthy, and conservatives like Romney, are selfish individualists.

    But the political philosophies of the parties are deeply influenced by which side of this divide they are on. For years, Paul Ryan lavished praise on Ayn Rand’s extreme individualist philosophy. She wrote, “Collectivism requires self-sacrifice, the subordination of one's interests to those of others.” The individual should “exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.” She condemned altruism and wrote a book entitled “The Virtue of Selfishness”. Emphasizing only individual rights, she considered government support of education, health care, farming or aid to the poor as a form of “looting” by “parasites”.

    In a 2005 speech to the Atlas Society, a collective of Rand adherents, Ryan said: “I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are and what my beliefs are. It’s inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff.. . . . In almost every fight we are involved in here, on Capitol Hill. . . . usually comes down to one conflict: individualism vs. collectivism. . . . there is no more fight that is more obvious between the differences of these two conflicts than Social Security. Social Security right now is a collectivist system.”

    Lately Ryan has disavowed his former self. In April he said it was an “urban legend” that he adhered to her ideas. That’s not surprising, since she was an adulterer and a drug addict, who completely rejected all forms of religion. Until recently, though, Rand’s immorality and atheism were irrelevant to Ryan and other Republicans, including Ronald Reagan, because of her total commitment to unfettered capitalism.

    This election won’t decide a winner between Ayn-Rand-style egoism and generous collectivism. But it will push our national balance in one direction or the other, as Americans swing between caring about their fellow Americans and caring about themselves.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 16, 2012

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Election Primer 2012: 18. Politics, Lies, and Videotape

    The internet has exploded again with righteous outrage. Barack Obama was videotaped giving a speech at Hampton University in 2007, in which he criticized the federal government for not treating the 2005 disaster in New Orleans from Katrina as generously as it had treated New York City after 9-11 and Florida after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. In those two earlier crises, provisions of the federal Stafford Act were quickly waived, which required local governments to contribute $1 of relief for every $10 of relief provided by the federal government. Obama complained that it took nearly two years to waive these Stafford Act provisions for New Orleans.

    But here’s the deep secret which is now coursing through the virtual politics of the right, proving what they have always insisted on, that Obama is a lying hypocrite: just before he gave that speech, he voted in the Senate against waiving the Stafford Act for New Orleans! Can you believe it?

    It’s true, but a lie at the same time.

    Bills in the Congress are often voted on many times, because their content is frequently changed by amendments and compromise between House and Senate versions. Bills get loaded up with sometimes unrelated provisions, so that legislators end up voting for things they support and things they don’t support at the same time. Occasionally someone will vote against what they believe in order to become part of the majority, so they can bring up the bill later for another vote, a confusing provision of Robert’s Rules of Order. For these reasons, looking at one vote may be misleading about a legislator’s intentions.

    In January 2007, Obama joined Senators Lieberman and Landrieu to push for more help for New Orleans. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco pushed for a federal law eliminating the 10 percent match. The House passed the bill in March. Obama was one of the main proponents of the bill in the Senate, but it stalled, and President Bush threatened to veto it.

    Different versions of the bill emerged. On May 24, Obama voted against the final version, named the U.S. Troop Readiness, Veterans' Care, Katrina Recovery, and Iraq Accountability Appropriations Act, because it did not have a timeline for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. In a statement that day, he explained his vote: “With my vote today, I am saying to the President that enough is enough. We must negotiate a better plan that funds our troops, signals to the Iraqis that it is time for them to act and that begins to bring our brave servicemen and women home safely and responsibly.”

    The right-wing opinion makers in the press, on TV, and on the internet are busy promoting a deliberately misleading version of these events to prove the utter hypocrisy, demagoguery, shamelessness, and mendacity of the man they love to hate, President Obama. When you read these pieces or listen to them on FOX News, you hear the same words, the same sentences, quoted over and over again. They tell about that one vote and not about Obama’s advocacy for New Orleans. They talk about how Obama voted against a bill that had $6.4 billion for hurricane relief efforts, but don’t mention that the bill, according to the US Congress Votes Database of the Washington Post, “primarily focuses on funding for the Iraq war”, to the tune of $100 billion. They say he lied to the mainly black Hampton University audience that the Stafford Act had not been waived, when he was talking about why it had taken so long to waive it. They imply that they have just unearthed this bombshell, ignored by the liberal media, when Obama’s speech was fully covered by all the media at the time.

    If the Obama campaign can criticize Romney for his videotaped remarks about the 47%, then the right has now found its video proof that Obama lies, too. Except the liars here are the right-wing pundits, who cut and trim and edit the facts until they fit their preferred narrative about “Barack Obama: Phony in Chief” (from conservative economist Thomas Sowell’s contribution to this chorus).

    Modern media can spread lies across the world instantaneously. Those who allow partisan liars to form their opinions, and who refuse to listen to anyone else, end up inhabiting an alternative political universe, where their candidates are anointed by God and their opponents do the Devil’s work.

    But the internet itself is non-partisan. A bit more digging, a bit of research on both sides, and the whole story can be discovered. Then you find out whom you can trust.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 11, 2012

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Election Primer 2012: 17. How to Win the Debate on Taxes

    TV commentators say Mitt Romney won the first presidential debate. He won it on taxes: “I don’t have a $5 trillion tax cut . . . . My number one principle is there will be no tax cut that adds to the deficit. . . . I will not reduce the taxes paid by high-income Americans. . . . I will not, under any circumstance raise taxes on middle-income families. I will lower taxes on middle-income families.” Should we believe that?

    Tax cuts for the wealthy are fundamental Republican economic dogma. Conservatives have made this policy the centerpiece of their economic theory: 1) the wealthy are job creators; 2) the more money they have, the more jobs they will create; 3) therefore lower their taxes. Which came first, the desire to enhance the household economies of rich Americans, or the theory that we all are better off when the rich get richer, is hard to say. They fit together so neatly.

    Tax cuts for the poor do not fit into this economic theory. Republican proposals in the Senate and House, created mainly by Romney’s VP selection, Paul Ryan, lower taxes on the wealthy in two whopping chunks: the top tax rate drops from 35% to 25%, and all taxes on capital gains disappear. The taxes paid by millions of low-income families would rise, because tax credits that help them are reduced, such as the Child Tax Credit, Earned Income Tax Credit, and American Opportunity Tax Credit.

    Last year, Romney’s “Believe in America” manifesto had no plan to reduce income tax rates. He supported the extension of George Bush’s tax cuts for everyone. Lower income tax rates might be the subject of a future “fundamental reform”. He did push a different tax reduction for the wealthy by eliminating the estate tax, benefitting individuals with estates worth more than $5 million.

    Then in the January Republican debate in South Carolina, Romney said he wanted to reduce the top tax rate: “More than 25%, I think, is taking too much out of our pockets. . . . 25 is where I would like to see us go.”
    In February, Romney said that he wanted to cut rates for all individuals by 20%, which would bring the top rate down to 28%. The cuts would be offset by reducing deductions, exemptions and credits for high earners, producing the same total revenue.

    Romney did not explain how this could happen until April, when he proposed to eliminate the mortgage interest deduction for wealthy people who have second homes. “By virtue of doing that, we’ll get the same tax revenue, but we’ll have lower tax rates.”

    Of course, removing that deduction comes nowhere near balancing the 20% reduction in tax rates, so Romney has been repeatedly asked what other deductions he would eliminate, without any answer.

    In August in Las Vegas, Romney was clear: “My tax policy will not reduce the taxes paid by high-income Americans.” At the September Republican convention, he asserted, “I want to lower taxes on middle-income people.” But he also said in Ohio that middle-class people would not pay lower taxes under his plan.   
    What Romney said about taxes during the debate is merely the latest version of his constantly changing proposals, still full of contradictions. Although the wealthy pay the same, and middle-class people pay less, “we keep taking in the same money, when you also account for growth.” In fact, by eliminating the estate tax, the alternative minimum tax, and the Medicare surtax on high incomes, his plan significantly reduces taxes paid by the wealthy.

    A bigger contradiction is that Romney has been claiming since April to get the benefits of a tax cut without it. In the debate with Obama he said, “And you think, well, then why lower the rates? And the reason is that because small business pays that individual rate. . . . And if we lower that rate, they’ll be able to hire more people.” This will happen just because the tax rate is lower, even if their tax bills are the same. That makes no sense.

    In September the Congressional Research Service, working for the House and Senate, released a report on Taxes and the Economy. Their conclusion was “that changes over the past 65 years in the top marginal tax rate and the top capital gains tax rate do not appear correlated with economic growth. . . . However, the top tax rate reductions appear to be associated with the increasing concentration of income at the top of the income distribution.”

    Doesn’t matter. Romney promised to create 12 million jobs in his first term. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the normal processes of this recovery will create 12 million new jobs. He said that we could become energy independent under his plan, but earlier this year Citigroup said that would happen anyway by the end of the decade. Romney promises us nothing.

    Romney’s New Economic Policy won the debate. Maybe he’ll be elected President. When a Republican-dominated Congress sends him the big tax cut for the wealthy that every Republican in Congress has been voting for, and that his Vice-President has staked his career on, what will President Romney do?

    Will he veto it? I’d like to hear him say that.

    But I still wouldn’t believe him.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 9, 2012

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Election Primer 2012: 16. Poverty of Thought

    Everyone knows what Mitt Romney said about poor people.  The half of Americans with the smallest incomes are sponging on the rest of us, “dependent upon government”. They “believe that they are victims, believe the government has a responsibility to care for them.” He has given up on them, because “I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

    Romney said it in May and hasn’t made any correction since then, except to wish he had said it better.

    There was no slip-up here. Mitt was expressing conservative dogma about the 47%, which you can listen to on any conservative radio show, read on any conservative blog, and hear from any conservative politician when they think they’re not in front of a camera.

    Conservatives do offer poor people one way out: get a job. They promise that lowering the taxes of rich Americans, reducing regulations on industry, and shrinking the number of government jobs will create private sector jobs galore, jobs for everyone.

    My brother-in-law David Booth, a singer-songwriter-professor in Minnesota, said something very different about poverty. He wrote me that Romney’s frequent use of Staples as the best example of how he created jobs through his leadership of Bain Capital “qualifies as irony.”

    Staples was Bain’s first success. Bain invested about $2 million in 1986. Staples went from one store to become an office supplies giant. Bain got back $13 million a few years later and Romney sat on Staples’ board of directors for 15 years. His campaign says that Staples contributed about two-thirds of the new jobs that Romney claims to have created at Bain.

     What kind of jobs did Romney create? According to glassdoor.com, which publishes job data for thousands of companies, salaries for entry positions at Staples are under $9.00 per hour. A 40-hour week and a 50-week year means a yearly income less than $18,000. Even with an income up to $26,400, a couple with two children would pay no federal income taxes.

    So Romney thinks that the people who got the jobs he says he created are those irresponsible parasites who are hopelessly dependent on government. That is ironic.

    Here is more recent evidence about the views of the two candidates on poverty.  The Circle of Protection, leaders of Christian organizations and churches across the religious spectrum, who are concerned about the moral issue of poverty, asked the two candidates in July to make short video statements about how “to provide help and opportunity for hungry and poor people.” These videos, released in September, avoid specifics, but do define the parties’ differences.

    Obama emphasized the value of government assistance to the poor and his unwillingness to reduce it. “My faith teaches me that poverty is a moral issue. The Bible calls on us to be our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper. And I believe that as a public servant, I must do my part to answer that call. . . .  That’s why I’ve fought to keep this a country where everyone who works hard has a basic sense of dignity and a chance to get ahead. . . . I believe that even as we work hard to get ahead, we also have the obligation to reach back and help others to get ahead, too. . . . We cannot balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable. We certainly cannot ask the poor, the sick, or those with disabilities to sacrifice even more. . . That’s not just bad economics. It’s morally wrong. . . . We are all in this together, as one people, one American family, one nation under God.”

    Romney emphasized both the jobs he would create over four years and the need to cut the domestic budget now. “Coming to the aid of those in need is a critical mission. . . . My vision for recovery starts with jobs, a lot of jobs. . . . But at this point budget cuts are also going to be necessary. . . . Here you have my word: I’ll proceed carefully. . . . entitlement programs now account for more than half of federal spending.”

    Although Romney used this opportunity to note that a record number of Americans are on food stamps, an implicit criticism of Obama’s economic leadership, the Republican Party wishes to cut the food stamp program, because it encourages the dependence that conservatives deplore. Republicans in the House have passed legislation, without any Democratic support, that reduces eligibility for food stamps. This is what Romney means when he said to the Circle of Protection that he would cut the federal budget carefully, but cut it nevertheless.

    The same party divide showed up when Congress considered extending compensation for the long-term unemployed. In 2009, virtually all Democrats voted for and virtually all Republicans voted against extending these payments through 2010.

    The parties differ on poverty policies because they differ in their views of the poor. Republicans suspect the poor of dependency and irresponsibility, and seek to reduce the government programs that aid them. Democrats wish to protect and extend those programs. No matter who wins in November, it will be a long time before enough new jobs are created to lift millions out of poverty. Until then, the winner’s vision of what the poor deserve will determine how much the poor eat.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 4, 2012

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Election Primer 2012: 15. Running out of Energy

When you drive through northern Illinois near Peru, 50 miles southwest of Chicago, hundreds of tall windmills appear on the horizon, slowly turning in unison. They produce electricity with no pollution.

Forests of windmills also change the rural landscape. Their clean white industrial lines seem out of place in the cornfields, among the wooden barns. But we need their output and every other productive energy source, because we are the world’s energy hogs.

The US is the second greatest producer of oil and natural gas, just behind Russia. But we are the fourth largest importer of natural gas, and by far the largest importer of oil. We account for about 20% of the world’s total energy consumption with 5% of its population, more than twice as much per person as other highly industrialized countries. We rely on oil, natural gas and coal far more than other fully modern nations, who use more power from water, wind, and sun.

The only bright spot in our energy picture is that we use a bit less energy per person than 20 years ago. But in China and India and a host of other nations energy usage is increasing at an accelerating pace, as they raise their standards of living. The price of our imported energy can only go up as demand multiplies. Staying in place means a very expensive energy future.

The two parties approach that future very differently, because energy and environmental politics are intertwined. The clash of energy philosophies has been symbolized for decades by the huge Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Republicans have pushed to open the ANWR to oil drilling, while Democrats have resisted. Bill Clinton as President vetoed a bill passed by the Republican-controlled Congress. Democrats in the Senate and Republicans in the House clashed during the presidency of George Bush, who supported drilling there. The latest vote in the House in February saw nearly 90% of Democrats vote against drilling and 90% of Republicans vote for.

New energy sources have transplanted this conflict to new locations. In the controversies over offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, retrieving gas in the shale under the Midwest states through fracking, and the proposed Keystone pipeline from Canada to Texas, the same argument remains unresolved. Democrats want to lessen the threats to the environment, and study the health of people who live in affected areas, while Republicans want to forge ahead, repeating their mantra “Drill, baby, drill.”

While Republicans stress increased production of oil and gas, Democrats favor using government funds to encourage renewable energy sources. Republicans have gleefully used the failure of Solyndra, a solar manufacturer supported by the Obama administration, to criticize the idea of shifting to renewables. But nobody wants to keep government out of energy production. The US government, in our names, from 2002 to 2008 gave $72 billion in subsidies to fossil-fuel based sources and $29 billion to renewable sources, according to a study by the Environmental Law Institute.

Shifting this balance cleanly divides the parties. A Democratic bill in the Senate to reduce the subsidy to the 5 largest oil corporations by about $2.4 billion per year came up for votes in May 2011 and March 2012. Both times nearly every Democrat voted for it and nearly every Republican voted against it, so there were not sufficient votes to prevent a Republican filibuster. To put those numbers in perspective, those corporations made $134 billion in profits in 2011.

How much energy do we need? What would reducing our energy usage as a nation look like?

The reduction in American per capita energy usage comes from a major increase in the gas mileage of automobiles and trucks, which has already saved billions of gallons of oil imports. When the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards were first enacted by Congress in 1975, in the wake of the Arab oil embargo, cars averaged under 13 miles per gallon. Mileage was doubled by 1985, but then Republican presidents or Republican congressional majorities blocked further legislation proposed by Democrats. However, the rise in gas prices and the competition from highly efficient Japanese cars forced American car manufacturers to raise their fuel efficiency without government regulation.

In 2007, the Democratic Congress passed and President Bush signed legislation to raise CAFE standards to 35 mpg by 2020. One of President Obama’s first legislative successes was to move that forward to 2016. This August, the Obama administration announced that the U.S. auto fleet will average 54.5 mpg by 2025, a goal endorsed by both industry and environmentalists. Mitt Romney has said that he would repeal these standards.

Regulations and subsidies are not the only governmental actions that could help solve our energy problems. Communicating useful information could also contribute. For example, few people know that three-quarters of the electricity used by home electronics is consumed while the products are off. Unplugging appliances or using power strips between electronic devices and power sources could save us all money and reduce electricity demands.

Maintaining our wasteful national lifestyle and relying on underground sources of energy means watching other nations take the lead toward an affordable energy future. With the right policies, the US could eventually become an exporter of both fuels and energy technology. Doing nothing now means falling further behind over the next ten years.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 2, 2012

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Election Primer 2012: 14. Partisan Wars Over Foreign Policy

    Mitt Romney is inexperienced in foreign policy. Much attention has been paid to his recent verbal blunders, from criticizing English Olympic preparations while visiting London in July, to calling American diplomats’ efforts to deal with hostile crowds in Cairo “disgraceful”. Many presidential candidates are inexperienced in foreign policy, as Barack Obama was in 2008. If Romney is elected President, he would improve at enunciating his policies. More important is to know what those policies would be.

    Republican foreign policy under George Bush was a disaster. The war in Iraq was unnecessary and unwinnable, and the war in Afghanistan was going nowhere. Osama bin Laden remained alive and Al Qaeda was spreading. No progress had been made on peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. World opinion about America, even among our allies, reached a low point.

    Republican leaders do not mention Bush, and have not discussed what went wrong and why. Many of the neoconservative experts who orchestrated the Bush foreign policy are now advising Romney. They have been very critical of President Obama’s foreign policy, without clearly outlining one of their own. What would they do differently?

    Republican foreign policy can most easily be described in the negative. In March, Romney called Russia “without question our number one geopolitical foe.” Republicans spend more time talking about China: Romney repeatedly says that punishing the Chinese for unequal trade policies will happen on Day One. Mexico and the rest of Latin America are the sources of all those illegal immigrants who should deport themselves back home.

    The vast Muslim world is dangerous, populated by a religion which many conservatives label as morally deficient. They attack those, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, who might apply Islamic ideas to government, while arguing that our government should be ruled by their version of Christian fundamentalism. In the section of their Party platform about foreign policy “Islam” appears twice, both times as the threat of “radical Islam”.

    Western Europe used to be our closest allies, but today’s Republicans only criticize Europe. In campaign speeches, Romney calls Europe “a social welfare state” and an “entitlement nation.” He describes the coming election as a battle for “the soul of America”, because voters must choose between “a European-style welfare state” or “a free land.”

    Whom do Republicans like? Israel. But only the most extreme politicians there, who refuse to limit settlement activities on the West Bank. Any effort to move Israel toward compromise is equated with “throwing Israel under the bus.” Republicans appear ready to let Israel draw us into a war with Iran on Benjamin Netanyahu’s timetable.

    A frequently used Republican word about Obama’s foreign policy is “feckless”, meaning weak and ineffective. That reflects the overall Republican strategy of projecting more strength, more power. The Democratic administration has been reluctant to use power, especially military power, compared with the ostentatious use of military power by their Republican predecessors. There is not much difference between the parties on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both are widely unpopular among American voters. Partisan interpretations of the withdrawal of troops from both war zones notwithstanding, the pace of withdrawal has been cautious under Obama.

    Obama has pursued the broader war on terror as vigorously as did George Bush. He has not closed Guantanamo and uses drones to kill enemies, even if they are American citizens. He ordered the pursuit and killing of Osama bin Laden, although Republicans appear peeved at his success.

    In the turbulent Middle East, Obama has been reluctant to intervene in unpredictable situations. Each country touched by the Arab Spring has followed a different path away from dictatorship. Egypt was a major ally, whose government was dictatorial and unpopular, so there was little American interference in the rebellion there. Libya was ruled by a sponsor of terrorism, for whose overthrow international approval, especially from NATO, was immediately forthcoming, so limited American military assistance was offered to the rebels. Syria sits in the center of the Israeli-Arab conflict, and Obama has refrained from anything beyond verbal support of the revolutionaries.

    Republican foreign policy is really driven by their domestic effort to unseat Obama and the Democrats. The New York Times reported in July that European leaders who felt slighted by Romney’s words had been told by his advisers not to read too much into statements made for a domestic political audience.

    The Democrats offer a known quantity, the continuation of this cautious foreign policy of the previous four years. What Romney would do in office is much less certain. The aggressive and risky proposals that Republicans advance in the campaign, like openly arming the Syrian rebels and threatening Iran with air attack if their nuclear program is not stopped immediately, may just be for show. But the nationalist arrogance of Romney’s “American century” rhetoric, the wholesale distrust of the world’s Muslims, the disinterest in seeking allies, and the support of the most belligerent section of the Israeli electorate are likely to continue to determine the foreign policy choices of Republicans, in or out of the White House.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 25, 2012

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Election Primer 2012: 13. Republicans at Home, and at Heart

    Mitt Romney was in a good place in May. His dinner host was Marc Leder, who made a fortune, just like Romney, by founding a private equity firm, Sun Capital. Mitt stood in front of about 30 people of his own small class – very rich, very important, and very conservative members of America’s real elite. Rich enough to spend $50,000 a plate for dinner with Romney, because he had just clinched the Republican nomination. Rich enough to give lots more money to any politician who might make America an even better place to be rich, important, and conservative. And they were giving it up for Mitt, their messenger, their mouthpiece, their leader. Mitt was at home.

    Here is what he said, to them and now to us all, since video of that dinner can be seen on your computer: “There are 47% of the people who will vote for the President no matter what. All right, there are 47% who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this President no matter what . . . . These are people who pay no income tax. 47% of Americans pay no income tax. . . . So my job is, is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

    Romney made a lot of mistakes that night. It is not true that 47% of Americans pay no income tax. That many pay no federal income tax, but many fewer pay no state income tax. Everyone in politics knows that only 18% of households pay no taxes at all; two-thirds of households who pay no federal income tax still pay payroll tax.

    That is a serious mistake, because Romney and his campaign advisers know that he was not telling the truth. But a bigger mistake was to put into the same basket all the people he doesn’t like. The 47% of Americans who pay no federal income tax are, for Romney, the same 47% who vote for Obama “no matter what”. Those people feel entitled to everything they need from the government because they see themselves as victims, and those same people will never take personal responsibility for themselves.

    Who are these people that Romney will not worry about, who will never be convinced to act responsibly? They are millions of retirees on Social Security, students who are no longer their parents’ dependents, the unemployed, poor families with children, and working families whose Earned Income Tax Credit eliminates their federal tax liability. And thousands of millionaires who used our tax code to pay no federal taxes.

    Most of the people who use the EITC to reduce their federal taxes soon pay taxes because their economic situation improves. Romney knows that, and he knows something else: his father George “was on relief, welfare relief for the first years of his life,” as Romney’s mother said in an interview when George was running for governor of Michigan in 1962.

    Where do these people whom Romney dismisses live? Even Whoppi Goldberg knows, as she said on “The View”, that of the 10 states with the highest percentage of people who do not pay federal taxes, Republicans are governors in 9. She’s wrong, though: all 10 governors are Republican.

    The contempt for Obama voters could not be clearer. I think that is the source of the much more focused Republican hatred of Obama. Obama is the opposite of this characterization of Obama voters. He is an even better all-American story than the anecdotes that conservatives tell to prove that any American can get anywhere with hard work. But Obama has turned his back on the American Dream. Instead of being grateful for everything America has given him, he put himself at the head of the rabble, the non-tax-paying 47%, the won’t-hold-a-good-job welfare abusers, the whining masses who feel sorry for themselves. For that, conservatives hate him.

    Once he found out that his remarks were being broadcast to the nation, Romney held a hasty press conference on Monday. Here he told the truth. “This is, of course, something I talk about a good deal in rallies and speeches and so forth . . . Well, um, it’s not elegantly stated . . . I’m sure I can state it more clearly in a more effective way than I did in a setting like that . . . . but it’s a message which I’m going to carry and continue to carry.”

    No mistake here, no correction of any of his false statements. That’s because it is not just Romney’s message. The other Republican candidates, as they each took the lead in the primaries, said the same disdainful and untrue things about half of Americans. A staffer at FreedomWorks, Dick Armey’s huge organization behind many Republican campaigns, got excited: “A new video that makes me like Mitt better than I did.”

    Romney does not want to be President of these Americans. He said on Monday that he approves of that message. So does the Republican establishment.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 20, 2012