Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

July 1, 2016

The Republican Party's Core Principles on Poverty

By David K. Shipler

Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan is busily issuing paper after paper on his party’s “core principles” regarding poverty, health care, national security, the tax code, and the like. These are meant to be serious proposals for reform, and they should be taken seriously, for some of them pose serious threats to less fortunate Americans.
That is especially so with Ryan’s anti-poverty plan entitled “A Better Way: Our Vision for a Confident America.” The 35-page document is heavily punitive, advocating sanctions against the poor if they do not achieve employment. If the plan were implemented by a Republican Congress under a Trump administration, it would further shred the safety net that now protects numerous innocent children from hunger and homelessness.
The damage would be done in two ways: first, by requiring heads of poor households to get jobs or lose their food stamps and housing subsidies—in effect, adding to those essential benefits the work requirements that currently limit cash welfare checks through Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF). In other words, if you don’t get a job, no help getting food for your kids and keeping a roof over your family’s head.
Second, Ryan would decentralize accountability by cutting most strings that are attached by the federal government to state and local expenditures of federal funds. So, recipients of grants would have pretty free rein to spend the money as they wish. Unfortunately, not all states care much about poor people, as we’ve seen in the Republican-led states that have rejected Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid, even though the cost is borne almost entirely by Washington.
Ryan is a master of political sleight of hand. He couches much of the proposal in acceptable terms, arguing that people should be helped to become self-sufficient through work rather than be imprisoned endlessly in poverty. Who can disagree? In practice, though, his document is governed by an assumption that the poor are irresponsible, that they won’t get themselves into jobs and out of trouble without being threatened by cuts in assistance.
It’s an old Republican canard, based on moral contempt for those without money. Sure, there are people at all socio-economic levels—including the wealthy—who don’t want to work hard, or at all. But all you have to do is spend some time with folks in poverty to learn quickly how desperate many of them are for fulltime, well-paid employment, particularly if it carries the potential for advancement. Much of the low-skilled job market is a trap, with paltry wages and no pathway up. Ryan has nothing to say about that.
Then, too, a single parent in poverty needs a broader support system to enable her to hold a decent job. Recognition of this fact is one glimmer of light in the Republican proposal, which acknowledges the interacting elements of poverty. The paper mentions the need for child care, help with transportation, and training to upgrade people’s skills. The trouble is, it contains no dollar estimates of the cost and no pledge to appropriate the needed money. It thus repeats the failure of the 1996 welfare reform law, which imposed time limits and work requirements on receiving cash but did not provide sufficient funds for child care and vocational training.
Nor does the Republican blueprint address problems in the private marketplace. It says not a word about raising the minimum wage, which Republicans across the country have almost universally opposed. It does not honor the fact that labor unions, and collective bargaining, can improve benefits and so make having a job just the kind of “better way” that Ryan envisions; instead, Republicans have been trying to crush unions. It mentions the need for improved pre-school and primary education, but it fails to call for more money to combat the deficiencies in skills among large portions of the American workforce.
Embedded in the proposals are a few worthy ideas. One is to ease the steep declines in certain benefits that are imposed as a person’s earned income rises. On balance, sometimes, a worker who loses food stamps or housing subsidies can be slightly better off without a job, or at very low pay, than in a position with a higher wage. This can be a deterrent to getting work with a higher salary, seeking a raise, or even accepting a promotion. Ryan wants to change that dynamic in the Earned Income Tax Credit, to “help smooth the glide path from welfare to work.” It’s a sensible notion, although he stops short of urging funds to pay for it, and he fails to apply the same reasoning to advocate more gradual phase-outs of other benefits. He thus leaves the impression—an old Republican myth—that the problem resides in the benefits themselves, rather than their structure and implementation.
In an odd coincidence, Ryan released his anti-poverty plan the same day he felt compelled to condemn Donald Trump for racism, which came just days after endorsing him for president. If Ryan is correct about Donald Trump—that he can maintain the Republican party’s “core principles” and that his attack on a federal judge for having Mexican parents fit the “textbook definition of a racist comment”—then it is not illogical to conclude that one of the party’s core principles must be racism, as Andrew Rosenthal has acerbically documented in The New York Times. The racism of the practiced professionals is usually more cleverly masked than Trump’s bigotry, but nonetheless guides the party’s policy positions on key issues, including voting rights and economics.
In the context of the Republican nominee’s “trickle-down racism,” as Mitt Romney called Trump’s brand of bigotry, the poverty plan takes on an unmistakable whiff. The fact is, just over half of the poor people in America are minorities. About 40 percent of Americans below the poverty line are white non-Hispanics, and the poverty rate in that group is 10 percent. The poverty rates of minorities are much higher: 26 percent of blacks are poor, and 24 percent of Hispanics. So, while millions of whites feel the impact of anti-poverty policies—and many of them appear to be Trump supporters this year—the major consequences of the substantial changes Ryan recommends would hit blacks and Hispanics, few of whom vote Republican.
Lower-income people are also the targets of repeated Republican efforts to cut off Medicaid reimbursements to Planned Parenthood, not just for contraception but for cancer screenings and other women’s health services. More than three-quarters (79 percent) of Planned Parenthood’s patients are below 150 percent of the poverty line.
Then there are the symbols of racism. Earlier this week, when a House bill funding Zika virus research and prevention was sent to the Senate, it contained an incongruous ban on the Confederate battle flag being flown at federal cemeteries. Senate Republicans deleted the prohibition so the flag could proudly wave. They also inserted a $540-million cut in money to help citizens of lesser means buy health insurance under Obamacare. These provisions, poison pills to the Democrats, killed the Zika bill entirely, so the world’s richest country, trying to be “great again,” sits on its hands in the face of a threatening illness that has already caused five cases in the U.S. of babies born with microcephaly, with more to come.

Such are the “core principles” of the Republican party. 

June 25, 2016

Brexit, Trump, and Idols of the Tribe

By David K. Shipler

            In 1975, Harold R. Isaacs began his book Idols of the Tribe this way:

            “We are experiencing on a massively universal scale a convulsive ingathering of people in their numberless grouping of kinds—tribal, racial, linguistic, religious, national. It is a great clustering into separateness that will, it is thought, improve, assure, or extend each group’s power or place, or keep it safe or safer from the power, threat, or hostility of others. This is obviously no new condition, only the latest and by far the most inclusive chapter of the old story in which after failing again to find how they can co-exist in sight of each other without tearing each other limb from limb, Isaac and Ishmael clash and part in panic and retreat once more into their caves.”

            Four decades later, supposedly civilized people are retreating once more into their caves to shear off the intricate connections with “them,” to escape from “others” who are “different,” and to celebrate their own group by denigrating those across the boundaries of race, religion, nationality—of tribe. Harold Isaacs, my father-in-law, would be appalled but surely not surprised, for his work on group identity drilled into the long human habit of self-definition that relied on stereotyping, categorizing, and rejecting whole peoples.
            As at certain earlier times in history, this bad habit is now translating itself into toxic politics. Make no mistake: The United Kingdom’s vote to exit the European Union—a departure that is expected to feed other ethnocentric moves on the Continent—was driven essentially by antipathy toward “others” who had paid the UK the highest regard by uprooting themselves and settling there.
There were the reasonable complaints about high-handed EU regulation of British consumer safety standards, for example, and the burden of rescuing economic basket cases like Greece. But immigration seemed the more animating issue: a revulsion toward those whose citizenship in EU member countries gave them free passes into the UK.

June 21, 2016

Obama, Syria, and the Limits of American Power

By David K. Shipler

            Opposition to U.S. policy rarely boils up from the State Department, which the columnist James Reston used to call the Fudge Factory, a place of ambiguous words, hedged bets, and dulled edges. So a dissenting memo on Syria that surfaced last week, signed by 51 State Department officials, caused a stir in Washington, especially after Secretary of State John Kerry was reported to share its argument for focused air strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad—something President Obama has resisted.
            The document sets forth some cogent reasoning and analysis. But it’s noteworthy that it comes from the State Department rather than the Pentagon. Not only is the military more disciplined than the Foreign Service (for better or worse), but it’s also probably more realistic in assessing the complications, costs, and risks of such an escalation.
The military chiefs are said to have steadfastly backed Obama’s refusal to conduct an air war against the Assad regime, and it’s not hard to see why. Cruise missiles could be fired from a safe distance, but if drones were introduced or American pilots flew missions, advanced Syrian air defenses would have to be taken out first. Russian aircraft, now deployed on Assad’s behalf, would have to be countered or induced to stand by idly—an unlikely prospect. Finally, a collapse of Assad would leave a power vacuum (think Libya) into which something worse might flow, something called ISIS.

June 13, 2016

A Nation's Mental Illness

By David K. Shipler

            If the United States were a person, it would be involuntarily confined to a psychiatric institution as a danger to itself and others. Hopefully, it could eventually be cured. But for the time being, it displays a disconnection from reality, a tendency to hear voices of fantasy, an addiction to violence that it knows is self-destructive, and an inability to grasp the logic of cause and effect.
            No mass shooting is needed to reveal these impairments, but every time one occurs, as in Orlando over the weekend, it is a symptom of the national psychosis, seen in a parade of careless pronouncements, declarations, analyses, and proposals. Imaginary enemies are everywhere. Facts are powerless. Magic words are conjured up as remedies—“radical Islam” is what Donald Trump wants Obama and Clinton to say—as if some spell of witchcraft will neutralize the threat.
            Such behavior is not the mark of emotional health. National sanity, equivalent to civic responsibility, requires critical thinking to sort through the ambiguities and contradictions that come with reality. It assumes an instinct for self-preservation that will reject damaging practices, i.e., a recovering alcoholic’s avoidance of alcohol, or a violent individual’s avoidance of weapons. It demands deferred gratification, long-term planning, and an understanding of the consequences of one’s actions.
The United States demonstrates some of these attributes some of the time, but not most of them most of the time. If it had a single brain, it would be diagnosed as paranoid, manic-depressive, schizophrenic, and yet rational and well adjusted all at once. (I checked this with a prominent psychiatrist friend, who confirmed the finding.) That brain would be so torn between oscillating impulses of dysfunction and functionality as to be paralyzed and unable to take care of its own interests except in rare instances.

June 3, 2016

Dear Post Office: If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It

By David K. Shipler

            In this age of self-serving politicians and corporate executives, and of resentment toward big business and big government and everything else big that stomps on the little guy, it is worth telling the story of an unassuming man who has put loyalty to a community above financial security. This will not get national attention, but it should.
            First, the geography and the logistics: For 28 years, L.J. Hopkins has loaded up his van every day, six days a week, to meet a variety of needs among folks living on two islands off the coast of Maine. He has driven onto the state ferry for its mid-morning run from Bass Harbor to Swan’s Island, unloaded his cargo, and returned to the mainland on an afternoon ferry. To get stuff to the other island—Long Island’s town of Frenchboro, which has only two ferry trips a week—L.J. has subcontracted with an island resident who has taken it in his boat from Swan’s to Frenchboro.
L.J.’s work can be pretty frantic. On the mainland he races around picking up urgently needed prescription medicine, engine parts, groceries, and the like. If he can’t get it, you probably don’t need it. He’s even taken two blown tires of mine off to the mainland to get fixed, and brought them back. He transports FedEx and UPS packages. And, most central to his financial well-being, he had a contract to transport the mail to the Swan’s Island post office—until earlier this spring, when small bureaucrats wielding excessive power prevailed. For decades before him, his mother brought the mail as well.
(This account is not exactly the official version, because the Postal Service’s regional public relations spokesman, Stephen N. Doherty, failed to reply to any of my rather pointed questions.)
The shock came when the local postmaster in the mainland town of Southwest Harbor, Mary Saucier, told L.J. that Postal Service regulations prohibited a vehicle from carrying anything other than mail. So, if L.J. wanted his $100,000-a-year contract, he could not take anything else, no FedEx, no UPS, no prescriptions, no groceries, no tools or parts to keep lobstermen’s engines running—nothing but mail.

May 22, 2016

Vietnam: Admitting Error

By David K. Shipler

            Contrary to Republicans’ false accusation, President Obama has not been traveling the world apologizing for American misdeeds (although there are plenty to be sorry for). Nor will he do so during his tour in Asia, neither at Hiroshima as the first sitting U.S. president to visit the target of the first atomic bomb ever used, nor in Vietnam, where a misguided war killed 58,000 Americans and up to 2 million Vietnamese, according to Hanoi’s official estimate.
            Apologies aside, it would be healthy for Obama at least to name the colossal errors of judgment that led to the Vietnam War: the Cold-War assumption that monolithic communism would spread like a red stain around the globe, that North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces were mere tools of Beijing and Moscow, that America could remake third parts of the world at will, and that American credibility would be shredded by a loss. In other words, he should call the Vietnam War what it was: a terrible mistake borne of historical ignorance and a disastrous misreading of the anti-colonialism that fueled Vietnamese nationalism.
             John Kerry, who is at Obama’s side as Secretary of State, missed his chance to talk about the war in these terms when he ran for president in 2004. Instead, he snapped a salute at his nominating convention and announced that he was reporting for duty. The transparent gesture to exalt his military role as a young Navy swift-boat commander in Vietnam, rather than embrace his famous conversion into an eloquent opponent of the war, forfeited the opportunity to advance the country’s perspective on the tragedy of its error.

May 16, 2016

The Politics of the Beard

By David K. Shipler

            Here’s the short version: Since I grew a beard on a whim in the summer of 1978, I have been mistaken for many kinds of people in several different countries: a KGB agent, a Maine lobsterman, a Jewish settler, a member of ISIS, and a homeless person. I was told in Kabul that if I added a turban, I could be a mullah, and a conservative in Israel suggested that I put on a yarmulke and go to the West Bank to see how a religious Jew would feel among hostile Palestinians. Each misidentification carried an interesting little lesson.
So did the beard’s absence, for when I went without it for a few months in 1995, I became unrecognizable in certain quarters. When I attended an event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where I’d worked from 1988-90, nobody greeted me; they simply didn’t know who I was. And my older son’s wedding pictures, taken during that interlude, show this mysterious fellow among the family members, like some interloper. Who is that guy? A woman I know slightly did recognize me bare-faced and quipped, “You’re in disguise!”

May 4, 2016

The Unknown America

By David K. Shipler

            Just as the world has entered a phase of post-nationhood, where warfare is committed most persistently by non-state actors such as ISIS, the United States has entered a phase of post-party politics, where insurgencies sap power from the party professionals who are supposedly schooled in the arts of campaigning and governing.
The political upheaval would be exciting if it weren’t scary, and it would be uplifting if the grassroots impulses were humane and inclusive. But the populist resentments are varied, and they are channeled into different streams. Bernie Sanders taps the noble yearning of those who want a society pledged to open opportunity. Donald Trump gives voice to a sinister tide so surprising in its scope as to raise the question of how well most Americans know their own country. How many of us realized that so much ugliness resided just beneath the surface of civility?
Probably not many, perhaps not even among those who find themselves supporting Trump. As they keep telling reporters, he says what they think. But do they really think that stuff? Has some intoxication with Trump removed their inhibitions? Do they all detest people not of their race, religion, ethnicity? Are they actually, deep down, soft on the Ku Klux Klan? Do the men, in their hearts, disparage women, and do the women among his voters ridicule themselves because of their gender? Do they truly admire crude name-calling, and would they tolerate such coarse rudeness in their children or their spouses?
Do they seriously misunderstand the American system of checks and balances that would prevent Trump from doing most of what he promises? Would they really prefer an authoritarian system whose head of state had semi-dictatorial powers? Do they actually believe that government, which has so disillusioned them, can resolve all the economic anxiety and hardship many of them have endured?
Do they admire Vladimir Putin as Trump does? Really? Do they truly want the nuclear proliferation that Trump proposes, with Japan and South Korea in possession of the bomb? Do they actually want a trade war with 45 percent tariffs on goods from China and China’s inevitable retaliation? Do they believe that America’s leadership will be enhanced by dismantling military bases and alliances? Do they think that swagger and bluster and boasting are what make America great?

April 29, 2016

What the People Do Not Want to Hear

By David K. Shipler

            I am old enough to remember when there were no credit cards. Yes, children, there was such a time, in the Olden Days. Personal accounts could be arranged at some local stores, which would note your purchases in a ledger, to be paid off eventually. Then some department stores—Macy’s, Sears, and the like—issued their own cards, valid for use in their stores only. Esso (now ExxonMobil) had its card for charging gas at Esso stations.
            But the only real private borrowing people did was to buy a house or a car. Even student debt was minuscule. The use-everywhere piece of plastic came along later, and with it, the ease of overspending and the boom in personal debt. Under the law, national banks’ interest rates were exempt from state restrictions on usury, and their terms weren’t exactly transparent. Add the second mortgage and the home equity loan, which allowed people to treat their houses like ATM machines, and you have a nation of folks craving what they see advertised, buying insatiably, and living beyond their means.
            Now, put that phenomenon onto the tectonic shifts in the American economy as it moves from an industrial age to a digital robotic age, and you have an upheaval as uncontrollable as global warming—only marginally manageable by the will of humans to make sacrifices and alter behavior. As manufacturing declined, union membership plummeted, eroding workers’ clout in the marketplace of labor. Wages did not keep pace with consumers’ appetites. As high-tech jobs mushroomed, the skills gap grew, with more and more Americans unable to compete effectively in a global economy.
            That’s where the current politics of rage enters the picture. Donald Trump tells people what they want to hear, but what they want to hear is a lie. It has two parts: First, everybody is at fault except yourself. Blame Mexicans. Blame Muslims. Blame “losers.” Blame liberal Democrats. Blame corporations that move jobs abroad.
            Second, solve the problems with a sweep of the hand: Ban Mexicans. Ban Muslims. Discard “losers.” Make deals. Run Democrats out of office. Isolate the U.S. from world trade. Bar corporations from closing factories here and opening them there.

April 19, 2016

My Composite Candidate

By David K. Shipler

            If only we could Photoshop politicians, taking a keen and honest eye from one, a civil and courteous tongue from another, a brain from one who happened to have one, and a heart from another to place into the one whose vacant soul echoes with unfeeling arrogance. If we could just move parts around with a cursor to combine into the ideal presidential candidate, we could relax instead of grinding our teeth until November. Imagine what a relief it would be if we didn’t have to wish that Bernie were more sensible and Hillary more credible, that Ted had learned something beneficial at Princeton, and that The Donald’s mouth didn’t have to be washed out with soap.
            So just for fun, permit me to irritate almost everybody who reads this by finding in each candidate some quality that would be suitable in a president, then assembling the array of characteristics into a composite.
            First, let’s combine the populist appeals of Trump and Sanders, but without their simplistic rhetoric. We leave behind Sanders’s one-note scapegoating of “Wall Street” so our perfect candidate has room for nuance and sophistication, which will come later in the construction process. Of course we lose Trump’s bigotry, misogyny, bullying, incitement to violence, and ignorance about the American system’s inconvenient obstacles to ruling by fiat.
            Absent those undesirable qualities, you might ask, what’s left? Good question. What’s left is both men’s instinctive talent for touching the legitimate frustrations and disaffections of large numbers of citizens who have suffered a raw deal or have seen others getting kicked. What’s left is both men’s knack for voicing the resentments about a government and an economy that have failed to protect those who have lost their homes, their reliable employment, and their sense of security and well-being.