Sunday, December 31, 2006

Saddam's Execution a Lesson for World Tyrants

Over at the New York Post, Ralph Peters notes that the end of Saddam Hussein marks a proud day for the United States, and the execution holds lessons for the world's dictators:

SADDAM Hussein is dead. The mighty dictator met a criminal's end on the gallows. The murderer responsible for 1 1/2 million corpses is just a bag of bones.

For decades, the world pandered to his fantasies, overlooking his brutality in return for strategic advantages or naked profit. Diplomats, including our own, courted him, while the world's democracies and their competitors vied to sell him arms.

Saddam always bluffed - even, fatally, about weapons of mass destruction - but the world declined to call him on his excesses. Massacres went unpunished. His invasions of neighboring states failed to draw serious punishment. He never faced personal consequences until our troops reached Baghdad (a dozen years late).

As long as Saddam paid sufficient bribes and granted the right concessions to the well-connected, the world shut its eyes to his cavalcade of atrocities. Even when his soldiers raped Kuwait, the United Nations barely summoned the will to expel his military - and the alliance led by the United States declined to liberate Iraq itself from a tyrant with a sea of blood on his hands.

Everything changed in 2003. For all of its later errors in Iraq, the Bush administration altered the course of history for the better.

It may be hard to discern the deeper meaning of our march to Baghdad amid the chaos afflicting Iraq today, but President Bush got a great thing right: He recognized that the age of dictators was ending, that the era of the popular will had arrived. He and his advisers may have underestimated the difficulties involved and misread the nature of that popular will, but they put us back on the moral side of history.

Bush revealed the bankruptcy of the European-designed system of international relations. An unspoken code agreed between kings and czars, emperors and kaisers, had protected rulers - however monstrous - for centuries, while ignoring the suffering of the masses. The result was that any Third World thug who seized a presidential palace could ravage his country as long as his crimes remained within his "sovereign" borders.

Supported by other English-speaking democracies, Bush acted. Breaking Europe's cynical rules, our forces invaded a dictatorship to liberate its population.

And suddenly, the world was no longer safe for tyrants.

No matter the policy failures in the wake of Baghdad's fall, the destruction of Saddam's regime remains a historical turning point. When our troops later dragged the dictator out of a fetid hole, every other president-for-life shivered at the image.

Tonight, none of those other oppressors will sleep well. They may try to console themselves that America is failing in Iraq, that we've learned our lessons. But no matter what they tell themselves, they'll never feel safe again.

We set a noble precedent, and the critics who insist that deposing Saddam was a mistake are rushing to a very premature judgment.

We did a great thing by overthrowing Saddam. We may have done it poorly, but we did it. We also revealed the hypocrisy of those governments who sold out their professed values for oil money (and pathetically cheaply, too).

From Paris and Berlin through Moscow and Beijing, many will never forgive us. We should be honored.
Of course, the handwringing over the execution is already in swing. For example, this morning's New York Times notes that Saddam's trial -- chaotic, politicized, and inconclusive -- may not advance the cause of international human rights. Underlying the debate is a moral self-questioning over the propriety of victor's justice, with the most important precedent the war tribunals following World War II:

At that time, as now, debates raged over whether the trials conducted by victorious forces were morally wrong or whether they were politically and psychologically indispensable. Some argued that those trials of the late 1940s did more harm than good and should never have taken place. Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime leader, had always urged that the Nazi leaders be executed, without trial.
Read the whole New York Times piece. It's a good example of the moral relativeness of the global rights advocacy network.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Islamist Extremism and the Battle for Global Values

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has a powerful essay in the January/February 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs. Blair argues that the war against terror is more than a military stuggle -- it is a global campaign for Western-led values of tolerance and liberty, and ultimately a battle about modernity itself.

Blair notes that not all of Islam is implicated in the global campaign for values. The real challenge to the West lies in Islamist extremism, which reached its most destructive stage on September 11, 2001:

On 9/11, 3,000 people were murdered. But this terrorism did not begin on the streets of New York. Many more had already died, not just in acts of terrorism against Western interests but in political insurrection and turmoil around the world. Its victims are to be found in the recent history of many lands: India, Indonesia, Kenya, Libya, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and countless more. More than 100,000 died in Algeria. In Chechnya and Kashmir, political causes that could have been resolved became brutally incapable of resolution under the pressure of terrorism. Today, in 30 or 40 countries, terrorists are plotting action loosely linked with this ideology. Although the active cadres of terrorists are relatively small, they exploit a far wider sense of alienation in the Arab and Muslim world.

These acts of terrorism were not isolated incidents. They were part of a growing movement -- a movement that believed Muslims had departed from their proper faith, were being taken over by Western culture, and were being governed treacherously by Muslims complicit in this takeover (as opposed to those who could see that the way to recover not just the true faith but also Muslim confidence and self-esteem was to take on the West and all its works).

The struggle against terrorism in Madrid, or London, or Paris is the same as the struggle against the terrorist acts of Hezbollah in Lebanon, or Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories, or rejectionist groups in Iraq. The murder of the innocent in Beslan is part of the same ideology that takes innocent lives in Libya, Saudi Arabia, or Yemen. And when Iran gives support to such terrorism, it becomes part of the same battle, with the same ideology at its heart.

Sometimes political strategy comes deliberatively, sometimes by instinct. For this movement, it probably came by instinct. It has an ideology, a worldview, deep convictions, and the determination of fanaticism. It resembles, in many ways, early revolutionary communism. It does not always need structures and command centers or even explicit communication. It knows what it thinks.

In the late 1990s, the movement's strategy became clear. If it was merely fighting within Islam, it ran the risk that fellow Muslims -- being as decent and as fair-minded as anyone else -- would choose to reject its fanaticism. A battle about Islam was just Muslim versus Muslim. The extremists realized that they had to create a completely different battle: Muslims versus the West.

That is what the September 11 attacks did. I am still amazed at how many people say, in effect, that there is terrorism today because of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. They seem to forget entirely that 9/11 predated both. The West did not attack this movement. It was attacked.
Read the whole thing. Blair is the West's most eloquent spokesman for the cause in which we fight. Most useful -- and what we need more of -- is Blair's tremendous clarity of purpose regarding the nature of our adversary and his profound sense of security in the goodness of our cause. The battle for global values does not stop with security, he argues, but includes all the dimensions of international interdependence in the contemporary era of globalization.

Bush Administration's Last Two Years Reflect Classic Lame Duck Presidency

President Bush faces vastly diminished powers over the next two years, according to this USA Today story. The administration is facing the dilemmas of any lame-duck presidency in the last throes of its tenure:

Embattled by the Iraq war, barred from seeking another term in office and facing an emboldened, Democratic-controlled Congress, President Bush fits the textbook definition: a lame duck.

His final two years in the Oval Office seem destined to be dramatically different and more difficult than his first six. Republicans in Congress, once loyal, have begun to fracture. Democrats in Congress, once powerless, vow to use their new authority to investigate the administration, challenge its policies and chart their own course.

Nevertheless, the president, calculating how to maneuver during his remaining time in office, insists he can score achievements — and says he plans to try. "Look, I came to do big things, and we're still going to try to do big things," Bush told a private gathering of Republicans after November's election setbacks, according to GOP strategist Charlie Black, who was there. "Regardless of my popularity and the Congress, I'm going to try to do big things."

Those "big things" include reauthorizing his signature No Child Left Behind law, winning passage of immigration legislation that provides a path to legal status for undocumented workers and taking steps toward adding individual investment accounts to Social Security. White House officials are exploring the prospects for limiting congressional "earmarks" in the budget process and encouraging new and expanded sources of energy.

But the war overshadows it all.

The conflict in Iraq is costing an estimated $8 billion a month, straining the Army and Marine Corps and sapping Bush's job-approval rating, now at 38% in a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll. A turnaround in the security and political situation there could invigorate his presidency, but growing violence and chaos might well make it hard for him to focus on anything else.

What Bush will propose in the State of the Union address next month and how he'll pursue those priorities will depend in part on how conciliatory Democrats are, White House officials say. They're preparing "soft" and "hard" approaches — from cooperation to confrontation — after studying how other presidents dealt with opposition Congresses.

"With the majority comes responsibility," White House strategist Karl Rove said in an interview. "In our system, the president governs. The president is the chief executive, and the Congress has the responsibility to legislate. But the Congress cannot legislate without the concurrence of the president, and vice versa. If Congress legislates and it does not have the concurrence of the president, it's called a veto."

The ferocity of the war in Iraq and its impact on U.S. relations around the globe limit Bush's ability to use a strategy other second-termers have employed during their final two years in office: Turn to foreign policy — where a president's powers remain largely unfettered — and change the subject from whatever is bedeviling your presidency.

"Iraq is still there; it's always there," says Frank Donatelli, a Republican consultant and former White House political director for Ronald Reagan. "Unless it starts getting better, it's like a 10-pound weight" on the president.

When presidents get to the final two years of their second term, their administrations often are running out of gas and into trouble.

The proposals that drove their first elections generally have either been enacted (such as Reagan's defense buildup and tax cuts) or run aground (such as Bill Clinton's health-care overhaul). Many of the advisers who helped them get to the Oval Office have moved on, and members of Congress in their party usually lose big in the election midway through the second term. The administration has had enough time in power for malfeasance to take place — and be uncovered.
The piece notes that Bush is undeterred, and remains confident that he can get "big things" done. The administration is likely to work on Social Security reform, energy policy, education, and immigration. Probably his most lasting victory could come in reforming Social Security, which is facing a funding crisis that threatens the solvency of the entitlement system. Unfortunately, Democrats may require that Bush jettison his call for private accounts in order to reach a deal. Such a compromise would betray the administration's goal of creating an "Ownership Society," in which every American gains greater individual sufficiency through homeownership and greater participation in the market.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Edwards' Poverty Theme Competes With Iraq Talk

This Wall Street Journal analysis of the John Edwards' anti-poverty agenda suggests that the former senator may have a hard time getting past the Democratic Party's Iraq debate as the primary season kicks up:

Many Democratic political operatives remain skeptical that the Edwards message will resonate among either Democratic or independent voters when antiwar talk is the rage, and could continue to be into 2008. On the eve of Mr. Edwards's announcement, rival Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware drew headlines with his pledge to oppose any increase in U.S. troops to Iraq.

Other Democrats say Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, could emerge as standard-bearers for a domestic agenda that competes with that of Mr. Edwards. Mr. Obama, especially, is seen as a rival to Mr. Edwards for the candidate who best projects optimism and hope.

Those cheering on Mr. Edwards's antipoverty crusade include party strategist Donna Brazile, who was Al Gore's campaign manager in his 2000 presidency bid. Recalling Mr. Edwards's past emphasis on the "Two Americas" theme, she says: "In 2004, that message went largely unheard. To his credit, he kept at it. And Katrina demonstrated the validity of that message."

Ms. Brazile is admittedly biased toward the message if not the messenger. (She says she will remain neutral in the Democrats' 2008 contest.) A native of New Orleans, she visited her father in the city this week for the holidays. Seven siblings and her extended family were among those displaced to other parts of Louisiana and seven other states, and like tens of thousands, they continue to struggle 16 months after Katrina to rebuild lives, careers and wrecked houses, she says.

Mr. Edwards plans to officially announce his 2008 candidacy to reporters today during a break on reconstruction work in the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans's most impoverished and hard-hit neighborhood. He is there with college volunteers he has mobilized. Earlier this year, Mr. Edwards labored in nearby St. Bernard Parish with nearly 700 student supporters who were on spring break from colleges in 27 states.

Yet as Mr. Edwards has suggested in speeches, his antipoverty theme is broader than helping Katrina's victims. He speaks of "the forgotten middle class" and of workers generally, who have seen their wages stagnate and benefits erode. He will expand on that message in coming days, seeking to take advantage of the slow-news holidays with a post-announcement tour of early primary and caucus states that could quickly decide both parties' nominees. Mr. Edwards is set to jet to Iowa, then crisscross the nation to New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina before ending Saturday in his home state, North Carolina. He plans to host town-hall-style events at each stop.

The former senator essentially has been campaigning since 2004. He has kept most of his top staff and donors together, and operatives in key places such as Iowa; he rates high in polls in that first caucus state. His email list has grown to more than 700,000, and union leaders are enamored of his populist message, Democrats say. Mr. Edwards's recent enlistment of labor stalwart and former Michigan Rep. David Bonior as campaign manager was plainly a bid for union support.

After the 2004 election, Mr. Edwards became director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he has solicited policy ideas for fighting poverty. He previewed his emerging antipoverty program most comprehensively in an address in June at Washington's National Press Club.

In that speech, he set a national goal of ending poverty in 30 years for the 37 million Americans living below the poverty line, lifting one-third of them above it in each of the next three decades. His "Working Society" agenda would mean a higher federal minimum wage, reduced taxes for low-income workers, universal health care, and one million new housing vouchers for working families, to help them find homes in neighborhoods with better schools.

Mr. Edwards proposes "Work Bonds" to provide tax credits to match low-wage workers' own long-term savings. He calls for the government to partner with nonprofit organizations to create a million "stepping stone" jobs, to help welfare recipients and others get experience on local projects so they can go on to better-paying private-sector jobs. And he would open "second-chance schools" aimed at the increased number of high-school students who drop out before graduating.

Mindful of the current headlines, however, Mr. Edwards has paired his domestic agenda with a call to immediately reduce U.S. forces in Iraq by at least 40,000. And he has taken pains to put his domestic vision in a global context. As he put it at the National Press Club six months ago: "How we work to improve our country and lift people up is also critical to restoring American leadership in the world."
I think Edwards' consistent anti-poverty advocacy since the 2004 campaign puts in him good stead against Barack Obama. I noted this point in my earler post on Edwards' campaign announcement and the changing nature of pre-primary presidential politics. Hillary Clinton's a much more substantial challenge, as she's really the odds-on front runner at this point.

Gerald Ford's Presidency Viewed Well by Historians

The nation is mourning this week the death of Gerald R. Ford, the nation's 38th president. The Washington Post obituary is here. Ford was a modest man. He said he was a Ford, not a Lincoln, in an automotive play of words, and he's generally viewed as the prototypical "average" president in American public opinion. (See this CBS News item for polling trends on the Ford presidency.)

Historians, though, give the Ford presidency high marks,
according to this Los Angeles Times story:

Gerald R. Ford left office a defeated incumbent vilified for his pardon of President Nixon. But in hindsight, his short, tough presidency has been viewed kindly by historians.

Long overlooked as a lightweight, Ford and his brand of moderate, consensus-oriented Republicanism — out of vogue in today's GOP — have earned high marks from presidential scholars in the three decades since he left office.

And the pardon is now seen by many as a wise decision that helped the nation move beyond Watergate.

"His early, sure touch on reassuring the nation in the aftermath of the Watergate meltdown … was really a restorative, refreshing contribution that he made, giving people hope," said Bruce Buchanan, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. "Then he took the step of pardoning Richard Nixon. Most people think in retrospect that it was the right thing to do, but at the time it smelled of politics as usual."

Ford decided to pardon Nixon just a month after he resigned in 1974. The former president had faced possible criminal prosecution for his role in covering up a 1972 break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate office complex.

The controversy cast a shadow over Ford's entire presidency.

He became the first president to testify under oath on Capitol Hill, trying to convince Congress that he had not made a secret deal with Nixon to exchange his resignation for a pardon.

In the end, historians say, the pardon helped the country recover from Watergate, but it cost Ford the presidency.

"Unlike many of us at the time, President Ford recognized that the nation had to move forward, and could not do so if there was a continuing effort to prosecute former President Nixon," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who opposed the pardon at the time, as he awarded Ford a 2001 Profile in Courage Award for leaders who make unpopular but correct decisions. "So President Ford made a courageous decision."

Melvin R. Laird, a former Republican congressman from Wisconsin, former secretary of Defense and a close friend of Ford's, said that was the former president's style. Through almost three decades of public service as a Michigan congressman, vice president and president, Laird said, Ford frequently put politics aside to do what he considered the right thing.

"He put his country first, even ahead of his church," Laird said. "He always felt that politics were very important, but not as important as doing the right thing for the country."

The article cites Ford's own assessment of his legacy:

"No doubt arguments over the Nixon pardon will continue for as long as historians relive those tumultuous days. But I would be less than candid — indeed, less than human — if I didn't tell you how profoundly grateful Betty and I are for this recognition," Ford said in 2001 as he accepted the Profile in Courage Award.

"Courage is not something to be gauged in a poll or located in a focus group. No advisor can spin it. No historian can backdate it," Ford continued. "In the age-old contest between popularity and principle, only those willing to lose for their convictions are deserving of posterity's approval."
The lead editorial at yesterday's Wall Street Journal noted:

Perhaps President Ford's greatest achievement was in demonstrating to a nation angry and dispirited over Watergate and Vietnam that its political system was resilient and the Office of the Presidency still worthy of respect. In that sense his Presidency was a triumph of Ford's personal character--not the first, or last, time America has been fortunate in the leaders our democracy has produced.
See also Peggy Noonan's remembrance of Ford at today's

I've been very moved by this week's commemoration of Ford's life. Gerald Ford embodied the essence of good -- his legacy is one of true greatness in the American character.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

America Past the Apogee? The Coming Anti-Hegemonic Alliance Against the U.S.

Charles Krauthammer, in a November speech to the Foreign Policy Research Institute, updated his theory of American unipolar preponderance in the international system. (Click here to access the speech, which is available at RealClearPolitics).

Back in 1991, Krauthammer argued that the United States was enjoying a "unipolar moment" of American world dominance. The international system had undergone dramatic change with the weakening of Soviet power, and future decades of world politics would be marked by unrivaled American hegemony across the globe. In his recent speech, though, he sees America's current international position under stress.

Krauthammer divides the post-Cold War system of American leadership into three periods: The 1990s, a preeminently peaceful decade in which the U.S. could wade into humanitarian crises at its choosing; the immediate post-9/11 era, the half-decade starting the 21st century in which the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington stirred America to global military exertion; and our current historical era -- post-winter/spring 2005 -- which Krauthammer dates as the "apogee" of American unipolar power. Krauthammer expects this current era to be one of relative American decline. He foresees the emergence of a countervailing alliance of states and transnational actors competing with a weakend U.S. for international primacy.

What happened? Basically, the exertion of American power under the Bush doctrine of democracy promotion has weakened the United States. Here's Krauthammer's triumphalist take on America's post 9/11 Wilsonianism under President Bush:

The Bush Doctrine held that besides attacking the immediate enemy who had perpetrated 9/11, it would have to engage in a larger enterprise of changing the underlying conditions which had given birth to this idea of Islamic radicalism, and to change the conditions that had allowed it to recruit and breed, particularly in the Arab world.

This meant changing the internal structure of Arab regimes and in a larger sense the culture of the Arab/Islamic world. This had been the one area of the world that uniquely had been untouched by the modernizing and democratizing influences of the postwar era. East Asia had famously taken off economically and politically, in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and elsewhere; Latin America and even some parts of Africa had democratized; of course, Western Europe had been democratic ever since World War II, but now Eastern Europe had joined the march. Only the Arab/Islamic world had been left out. Unless it was somehow encouraged and brought along on that march, it would remain recalcitrant, alienated, oppressed, tyrannical, and the place from which the kind of atavistic attacks on America and the West that we have seen on 9/11 and since would continue.

That's why the entire enterprise of changing the culture of the Arab world was undertaken. It was, as I and others had said at the time, a radical idea, an arrogant idea, a risky idea. But it was also the only idea of any coherence and consistency that anyone has advanced on how to change the underlying conditions that had led to 9/11 and ultimately to prevent the kind of conditions that would lead to a second 9/11.

So we have this half decade of American assertion. And it was an astonishing demonstration. In the mood of despair and disorientation of today, we forget what happened less than half a decade ago. The astonishingly swift and decisive success in Afghanistan, with a few hundred soldiers, some of them riding horses, directing lasers, organizing a campaign with indigenous Afghans, and defeating a regime in about a month and a half in a place that others had said was impossible to conquer; that the British and the Russians and others had left in defeat and despair in the past. It was an event so remarkable that the aforementioned Paul Kennedy now wrote an article, "The Eagle has Landed" (Financial Times, Feb. 2, 2002) in which he simply expressed his astonishment at the primacy, the power, and the unrivalled strength of the United States as demonstrated in the Afghan campaign.
After Afghanistan, of course, we've had the Iraq deployment. But the United States has not prevailed in Iraq, and American difficulties there have laid the basis for an Iranian-led counter-coalition of global actors seeking to reign-in American power and influence. Here's Krauthammer's prediction on the future of international politcis:

What is becoming clear is that the overall international strategic situation in which we had unchallenged hegemony for the first decade and half the unipolar moment is now over. We are seeing on the horizon the rise of something that is always expected in any unipolar era, which is an alliance of others who oppose us.

Historically, whenever one country has arisen above all the others in power, anti-hegemonic alliances immediately formed against them. The classic example is the alliance against Napoleon in the early nineteenth century, and of course the alliances against Germany from World War I to World War II, particularly in the 1930s, where you had the rise of an aggressive, hegemonic Germany in the heart of Europe. What is interesting about our unipolar era is that whereas we had achieved unprecedented hegemony in the first decade and a half, there were no alliances against us. What I think we are beginning to see now is Iran positioning itself at the center of a regional alliance against us, again with the--Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria, Sadr--looking to overawe the entire region with the acquisition of nuclear weapons, which would make it the regional superpower. And Iran is receiving tacit backing for its regional and anti-American ambitions from two great powers: Russia and China. That, I think, is the structure of the adversary that we will be looking at for the decades to come.

As the Bush Doctrine has come under attack, there are those in America who have welcomed its apparent setbacks and defeats as a vindication of their criticism of the policy. But the problem is that that kind of vindication leaves America in a position where there are no good alternatives. The reason that there is general despair now is because if it proves to be true that the Bush Doctrine has proclaimed an idea of democratizing the Arab/Islamic world that is unattainable and undoable, then there are no remaining answers to how to counter ultimately the threat of Islamic radicalism.

It remains the only plausible answer--changing the culture of that area, no matter how slow and how difficult the process. It starts in Iraq and Lebanon, and must be allowed to proceed and not precipitate an early and premature surrender. That idea remains the only conceivable one for ultimately prevailing over the Arab Islamic radicalism that exploded upon us 9/11. Every other is a policy of retreat and defeat that would ultimately bring ruin not only on the U.S. but on the very idea of freedom.
Read the whole thing. Krauthammer suggests that not all is lost in Iraq, if a way could be found for the Iraqi regime to seize control of the situation and put an end to sectarianism and civil war.

I'm split in my assessment of Krauthammer's thesis. I agree with him on the reasons for American failure in Iraq -- particularly mistakes in the U.S. occupation and the Iraqis' lost opportunties in consolidating their new democratic regime. Krauthammer's right, moreover, to argue that a cultural revolution is key to transforming the Middle East, and the U.S. goal for the region should remain the eventual establishment of an arc of democracies from Damascus to Riyahd.

I disagree, however, that American failure in Iraq represents the collapse of American global power and leadership. Krauthammer, surprisingly, is just one more analyst jumping on the bandwagon of a new thesis of American decline. It's starting to become pretty common to see commentary articles suggesting that Iraq will foment the collapse of U.S. power and the rise of a new constellation of powerful actors rivaling the U.S. This is premature talk, however. The United States will remain the world's indispensible actor for the foreseeable future. No other state enjoys a comparable level of economic endowments, and our forward military power projection capabilities dwarf those of any near rival.

The sun's not setting on American world leadership anytime soon. I've blogged previously about the thesis of American decline: One post examined
Fareed Zakaria's optimistic looked at the continued future of American global leadership, and a second entry looked at Christopher Layne's argument on America's unipolar illusion. Check them out.

Decline in L.A. Crime Validates Chief Bratton Plan

This Los Angeles Times report indicates that crime in Los Angeles has decreased for the fifth straight year, a trend that is validating Police Chief William Bratton's theory of crime prevention:

Crime in Los Angeles dropped for the fifth consecutive year in 2006, bucking trends both for the nation and in other regions of Southern California, where violent offenses are increasing.

Crime numbers reviewed Tuesday show that as of late December, total crime across Los Angeles was down about 8%, with major drops in burglaries, car thefts, rapes and assaults.

Homicides dropped about 4%, from 487 in 2005 to 464 as of Dec. 23 this year, according to Los Angeles Police Department statistics. The only crime to rise in 2006 was robbery, up 6% to 13,943 incidents.

The crime numbers boost the prestige of Police Chief William J. Bratton at a time when he is seeking a second five-year term and writing a book about how other cities can combat crime.

"You can't be lucky seven times in a row. If I was, I'd be making a living hanging out at the blackjack table," the chief said Tuesday, noting that crime dropped not only during his tenure as police chief in Los Angeles but also when he was chief in Boston and New York.

Bratton has long sparred with some criminologists, who question how much credit the LAPD — or any other police agency — can really take for crime declines. They believe falling crime is caused by myriad factors, including the economy, demographics and urban gentrification.

But on Tuesday, even some skeptics were tipping their hats to the chief, saying five straight years of decline clearly shows the LAPD is doing something right.

"Bratton has focused on gangs, guns, and drugs," said University of Chicago law professor Bernard E. Harcourt, who was co-author last year of a paper dealing with Bratton's record in New York that provoked the chief's ire. "And I think we are seeing that it has paid off. Larger national trends affecting major U.S. cities are obviously contributing to the declines, but Bratton's focus … has proven successful."

James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University in Boston, agreed, adding: "There is no external factor that would explain such a large decline. It has to do with crime prevention and crime control at the local level."
The piece notes some key points in Bratton's approach:

Bratton was appointed LAPD chief in late 2002 and set out to remake a department plagued by charges of officer misconduct steaming from the Rodney G. King beating and Rampart Division corruption scandal.

Bratton pushed to rethink the way the department tackled crime, using the CompStat computer mapping system to help pinpoint crime trends and identify specific areas that require more policing. He moved more officers into areas with severe gang problems. At the same time, he told officers to focus on smaller crimes like vandalism that he believe might eventually lead to larger ones.

Bratton had used many of these strategies when he was police commissioner in New York in the early 1990s and won wide praise for decreases in crime there.

But some academics have questioned how big a role police tactics play in crime drops.Harcourt, the law professor, was co-author of an article saying that crime in New York would have fallen even without Bratton's techniques because he believes that crime that goes up will naturally go back down.

Bratton shot back, co-writing a National Review article taking to task ivory tower academics," who have "never sat in a patrol car, walked or bicycled a beat, lived in or visited regularly troubled violent neighborhoods."

On Tuesday, Bratton credited his police officers with reducing crime in Los Angeles but said the city needs more of them."Cops count," Bratton said. "The issue in Los Angeles is that there haven't been enough of them."

Bratton's crime-fighting plan draws on the research of eminent political scientist James Q. Wilson. Back in 1982, Wilson, along with George L. Kelling, laid out the "broken windows" theory of crime prevention in an Atlantic Monthly article. The theory argues that the prevention of serious crime is facilitated by aggressively enforcing smaller infractions, such as vagrancy, subway fare violations, public drunkeness, and so forth. The theory's analogy is to a broken window, which left unfixed encourages additional acts of vandalism. Thus, it's better to address problems early, before more significant issues arise later.

Dirty Politics and the Duke Rape Case

Stuart Taylor and KC Johnson had an excellent commentary on the Duke rape case in yesterday's Wall Street Journal. The case is a textbook example of dirty racial politics in the criminal justice system:

It's no secret that hugely disproportionate numbers of the innocent people oppressed by abusive prosecutors and police in this country are African-Americans. Now one of the most outrageous cases of law-enforcement abuse is unfolding in Durham, N.C., home of the Duke lacrosse case. And African-Americans are leading the cheers for the oppressors. Why? The poison of identity politics, plus class hatred of the prosecutor's three main victims, well-off white men falsely accused of rape by an unstable black "exotic dancer," and a deeply dishonest district attorney.

Last spring, Durham D.A. Michael Nifong, who is white, was facing a primary in a racially divided electorate. He was badly behind and out of campaign money, excepting almost $30,000 in loans from his personal funds. Then came the accuser's allegations. Mr. Nifong responded by assuming control of the police investigation and making racially inflammatory statements pronouncing the Duke lacrosse players guilty of rape. Even as evidence of their innocence accumulated, he brought rape, sexual assault and kidnapping charges that fed the racial resentments he had stoked. The black vote put him over the top in both the May 2 primary and the Nov. 7 general election.

Black leaders--including Durham Mayor Bill Bell, the appallingly demagogic North Carolina NAACP and others--should know better. So should the powerful, identity-politics-obsessed hard left of Duke's own faculty, 88 of whom issued a statement in April saying "thank you" to protesters who had branded the players rapists. And so should the media, most of which gleefully joined the clamor last spring.

It has been clear for many months that the rape claim is almost surely a lie. But not until the DA's dramatic dismissal last Friday of the rape (but not the sexual assault and kidnapping) charges did Mr. Nifong enablers such as the New York Times and Duke President Richard Brodhead begin distancing themselves from his oppression of three innocent young men.
Read the whole piece. The victim's allegations of rape grew in implausibility as the investigation continued. Taylor and Johnson suggest that Durham D.A. Michael Nifong's handling of the case is likely to get him disbarred.

Poor Blacks Can Succeed With Encouragement

Juan Williams, in the Altlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this week, noted that the best way to encourage the upward mobility of poor blacks was to encourage them to adopt mainstream behavior.

Such suggestions have come under fire by some liberal black academics as "blaming the victim," and their attacks are confined not just to members of the black middle class, but anyone who speaks out against such self-defeating behavior as "dropping out of high school at exorbitant rates, drug use, criminal behavior, high numbers of children born out of wedlock and parents abandoning their childrent":

This is the case even if a black adult dares to object to a black teenager screaming curse words and hate-filled rap on a crowded train.

William Cobb, a Spelman College history professor, has written that anyone correcting that offensive behavior is more concerned with what white people think about them. That fits with the general criticism, from another African-American professor, Michael E. Dyson, of the University of Pennsylvania. He has written that the black middle class unfairly "rain down fire and brimstone upon poor blacks for their deviance and pathology."

In a new book "Enough," I write about the 25 percent of black America locked in poverty and the shocking picture of dysfunction evident in a 70 percent out-of-wedlock birthrate among black Americans; a 50 percent high school dropout rate and a disheartening 40 percent of America's prisoners being black.

Instead of addressing these problems head-on in the black community, there has been a long, chilling silence because few black leaders want to be targeted by critics who charge them with being elitist or excusing the historic damage done by white racism.

Black intellectuals, such as Cobb and Dyson, are enforcing that code of silence. They are also defending the sad status quo among poor black people. Added to the recipe is the intellectual defense of hip-hop — with music, videos and films — that excuses failure and even celebrates destructive, criminal "Gangsta" behavior such as violence, stealing to get 'bling-bling' and abusive treatment of women....

The story of black Americans is as old as this nation. It is an inspiring struggle for equal rights in the face of slavery, through the Civil War, and then against laws that had the government enforce racial segregation. The prize for this movement for racial justice has always been equal right to compete in schools, in jobs, in the military, at the voting booth and at the swimming pool. The quest has always been about leveling the playing field and giving black people a chance to show their genius.

Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: All of these leaders gave their lives to open the doors of equal opportunity in the American mainstream for black Americans. Their success has created the largest, most affluent and politically powerful black population in world history. Racism persists in America, complete with stereotypes, mistrust and discrimination. But it is nothing comparable to the exclusion and violence that limited past generations of blacks. Most black Americans, as they fight to move up economically and put their children in position to succeed, reject any victim mentality. They appreciate that greater opportunities exist for this generation than for any of our predecessors.

Yet there is this hard fact — a persistent 25 percent poverty rate among black people today. Sadly, statistics show it is often identified with the same group of people, the same families, from generation to generation. It is the exact opposite of compassion to lie to people about the source of many of their problems when it is clear that they are often hurting themselves.

A recent article in The New York Times reported that child psychologists have found that by age 3, the average child of a middle-class professional has heard 500,000 words of encouragement and 80,000 words of discouragement. Among children in welfare families, the numbers were turned on their heads with 75,000 words of encouragement and 200,000 words of discouragement. Middle-class parents, the researchers found, also spoke to their children about the value of education. They regularly discuss with children family rules, current events and how to negotiate difficult situations and people.

These are middle-class values that benefit people, black or white.

To encourage the black poor to adopt these values is not evidence of self-hate but offering good news about how people can help themselves and their children to succeed. It is good news to know that if you stay in school and at least graduate from high school, then stay in the job market and don't have a child until you are in your 20s and married, you have little chance of being poor.

It is right — not self-hating — to tell an obnoxious kid cursing on the train to stop it because he is not only obnoxious but displaying behavior that will hurt his chances in life.

Instead of condescending to the poor by rationalizing bad behavior, the academics should offer themselves and their success as evidence of what black people can do with discipline and hard work, despite racism. The academics who prefer to disparage the black middle class when it offers guidance and inspiration are not hurting the black middle class — they are hurting the black poor.

I cited Williams in an earlier post discussing "The Hard Facts About Black America." Williams new book is, Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America -- And What We Can Do About It.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Edwards Presidential Campaign Announcement Shows Changes in Nomination Strategies

According to this New York Times piece, John Edwards is expected to announce his candidacy for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination tomorrow. The article notes that presidential hopefuls are making their announcements earlier than in past election years, suggesting a new politics of presidential announcements. The trend reflects careful campaign strategies amid a wide open campaign field and intense pressure to raise huge warchests due to a heavily frontloaded campaign calendar:

For all the very orchestrated hoopla about to be heaped on American voters over the next few weeks, presidential announcements have become, more often than not, vestigial remnants of the way presidential politics were once conducted (or at least the way they are remembered).

Rather than being big moments in which candidates lay down ideological markers and discuss what they would do as president, announcements are more of a pro forma exercise of the obvious. Campaigns grab at a political opportunity for attention with events that, ultimately, are of relatively small consequence.

For Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Romney, Mr. Edwards and Mr. McCain, it would be noteworthy, after all they have done, if they were to announce that they were not running. Mr. Edwards’s 2008 campaign arguably began on Election Day 2004, when he lost as his party’s vice-presidential candidate.

But if formal announcements hold little drama, they are hardly meaningless. Their timing and staging reflect how presidential politics are changing in the United States in 2008, and offer a glimpse at problems each candidate faces one year before the Iowa caucus. The announcements are an insight into how campaigns are adapting to the pressures of the Internet, the demands of fund-raising, the broad range of avenues for reaching voters and mobilizing supporters, and the particular dynamics of the ’08 campaign, crowded with candidates, many of them celebrities.

Most strikingly, the announcements are being made extraordinarily early. In the 1992 cycle, Bill Clinton did not formally announce his candidacy until October 1991, three months before the Iowa caucus. When Mr. Edwards announces, with a round of morning talk show interviews and a press conference in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, he will become the third Democrat to enter the race formally.

As of now, about a half-dozen candidates have formed presidential exploratory committees, a step that allows them to raise money as they take soundings about a race. And Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware, told reporters Tuesday that he planned to set up his exploratory committee next month.

In this crowded field, few candidates in either the Democratic or Republican Party can afford to wait and risk watching a rival pick off big-name elected officials, campaign consultants and contributors. And since aides to many of the candidates say they are likely to bow out of the public campaign finance system and raise money on their own, there is pressure to start raising money now.

“Timing is becoming much more of an issue,” said Joe Trippi, who managed the 2004 presidential campaign of Howard Dean. “You’re seeing it now in the urgency of these people to get out and announce.”

Understandably, candidates are going to do what it takes to get publicity. Mr. Edwards’s aides said they chose this slow-news time of year, and the backdrop of New Orleans neighborhoods ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, in part to command the maximum amount of attention. Camera crews will be permitted to film Mr. Edwards as he helps with the cleanup efforts.

But there are less obvious advantages as well. Mr. Trippi said that when Mr. Dean declared for president in June 2004, they timed his announcement for a week before the deadline for the release of campaign finance reports. The idea was that the excitement built by the announcement in Vermont would result in a surge of contributions that would allow Mr. Dean to surprise the political world with a display of his grass-roots financial support. Mr. Dean’s big fund-raising report that month proved to be one of the biggest boosts of his campaign.

Mr. Edwards, who is arguably the most Web-savvy candidate in the ’08 race to date, is using Thursday’s event to try to gin up his supporters via the Internet. He sent out an e-mail message earlier this week, saying he was on the verge of making a decision that his aides say has, in fact, already been made.

The decision of how to time the announcements also reflects the particular needs of the candidates.

For Mr. Edwards, there is clearly interest in trying to win attention after two months in which Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama dominated the coverage of the Democratic contest.
Edwards is expected to campaign on a domestic policy platform, with his main focus an anti-poverty agenda. This tack represents key strengths for his campaign: One, Edwards will not waste time searching for a central campaign theme. Two, he'll stand out from both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama -- his main competitors -- who so far have not articulated central messages for their candidacies. Edwards has worked on social policy issues since losing on the Kerry-Edwards ticket in 2004, and he's a Southern Democrat -- a huge asset in recent presidential elections.

An Edwards White House bid, built on an anti-poverty agenda, will be one of the most exciting things to emerge out of the Democratic primaries. Edwards is not a shrill, Bush-hating, antiwar, redistributionist Democrat. He's accepted that Americans expect the poor to hold jobs and gain the skills needed to promote individual self-sufficiency. The country badly needs to reduce poverty levels, though new policies must avoid the disastrous promotion of governmental dependency that marked the Great Society-era programs.

See my earlier post on
poverty in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and the federal governments new social policy push there, which is being considered "Ground Zero" in a new war on poverty.

San Francisco Rejects Storefront Marijuana Shop

This Los Angeles Times article details the interesting story of Kevin Reed, a medical marijuana dispenser in San Francisco who had to close up shop despite the city's liberal reputation:

Kevin Reed launched his medical marijuana business two years ago, armed with big dreams and an Excel spreadsheet.

Happy customers at his Green Cross cannabis club were greeted by "bud tenders" and glass jars brimming with high-quality weed at red-tag prices. They hailed the slender, gentle Southerner as a ganja good Samaritan. Though Reed set out to run it like a Walgreens, his tiny storefront shop ended up buzzing with jazzy joie de vivre. Turnover was Starbucks-style: On a good day, $30,000 in business would walk through the black, steel-gated front door.

Today, the 32-year-old cannabis capitalist is looking for a job, his business undone by its own success and unexpected opposition in one of America's most proudly tolerant places. Critics in nearby Victorian homes called Reed a neighborhood nuisance. Although four of five San Francisco voters support medical marijuana, the realities of dispensing the contentious medicine have proved far more controversial.

It has been 10 years since California approved Proposition 215 — the Compassionate Use Act — becoming the first state to define marijuana as a medicine. The 389-word act aimed to ensure seriously ill Californians the right to use marijuana. But it said nothing about how they might get the drug — and left ample regulatory ambiguity.

Today, about 200,000 Californians have a doctor's permission to use cannabis, which they can obtain through more than 250 dispensaries, delivery services and patient collectives — 120 of them in Los Angeles County alone. Medical marijuana, activists say, has become a $1-billion business.

There's been plenty of blowback. Local governments have been grappling with how to regulate storefront sales, still prohibited under federal law despite California's tolerance.

Though two dozen cities and seven counties — including Los Angeles, Riverside and Santa Barbara — have approved regulations allowing dispensaries, more than 90 others have passed moratoriums on new suppliers or banned them outright. Earlier this month, a Superior Court judge rejected a challenge to the medical marijuana law by Merced, San Bernardino and San Diego counties.

Reed started the pot shop so he could satisfy his own demand for medicinal marijuana. His operation generated local controversy in San Francisco's Fair Oaks community -- located between the Mission District and the Noe Valley neighborhood -- when it started becoming more like a cannibus club for the healthy and hip than a weed vendor to the afflicted:

FAIR Oaks locals, most of them believers in medical marijuana, at first were laid back about the little pot shop. But feelings hardened as customers flocked in.

Reed says his big mistake was revving up business with a newsweekly ad offering a half-off special. Pot patients arrived from across the Bay Area, many bereft after a dispensary crackdown in Oakland's downtown "Oaksterdam."

Residents compared the revolving door of 300 daily patrons to a beehive on a sunny afternoon. They grumbled about customers double-parking, blocking driveways, flipping off homeowners. Aromatic smoke wafted. When Green Cross hired security guards to referee parking conflicts, problems simply moved up the block.

Neighbors watched some youthful customers emerge and share their wares with friends, high-fiving all around. A few reportedly harassed some eighth-grade schoolgirls. One patient was robbed at gunpoint. Crime worries grew.

"I saw people coming up on bikes and skateboards, with backpacks, healthy-looking young men," said Dr. Charles Moser, a physician who, like many in Fair Oaks, voted for Proposition 215.

Neighborhood critics said they were all for cannabis compassion, but not this free-for-all. Proposition 215 encouraged government planning for safe and affordable distribution, but it didn't mention pot clubs.
Well, I guess the Not-In-My-Backyard syndrome is not confined to suburban, Republican country club elites!

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Middle Class Blacks Struggle to Find Nanny Care

Black families just can't find good nanny help! It seems just as more and more black Americans make dramatic strides into middle class affluence, the inconveniences of the marketplace raise questions of racial hierarchies in the procurement of upscale accoutrements. This New York Times article has the details:

Last month, Jennifer Freeman sat in a Chicago coffee bar, counting her blessings and considering her problem. She had a husband with an M.B.A. degree, two children and a job offer that would let her dig out the education degree she had stashed away during years of playdates and potty training.

But she could not accept the job. After weeks of searching, Ms. Freeman, who is African-American, still could not find a nanny for her son, 5, and daughter, 3. Agency after agency told her they had no one to send to her South Side home.

As more blacks move up the economic ladder, one fixture — some would say necessity — of the upper-middle-class income bracket often eludes them. Like hailing a cab in Midtown Manhattan, searching for a nanny can be an exasperating, humiliating exercise for many blacks, the kind of ordeal that makes them wonder aloud what year it is.

“We’ve attained whatever level society says is successful, we’re included at work, but when we need the support for our children and we can afford it, why do we get treated this way?” asked Tanisha Jackson, an African-American mother of three in a Washington suburb, who searched on and off for five years before hiring a nanny. “It’s a slap in the face.”

Numerous black parents successfully employ nannies, and many sitters say they pay no regard to race. But interviews with dozens of nannies and agencies that employ them in Atlanta, Chicago, New York and Houston turned up many nannies — often of African-American or Caribbean descent themselves — who avoid working for families of those backgrounds. Their reasons included accusations of low pay and extra work, fears that employers would look down at them, and suspicion that any neighborhood inhabited by blacks had to be unsafe.

The result is that many black parents do not have the same child care options as their colleagues and neighbors. They must settle for illegal immigrants or non-English speakers instead of more experienced or credentialed nannies, rely on day care or scale back their professional aspirations to spend more time at home.

“Very rarely will an African-American woman work for an African-American boss,” said Pat Cascio, the owner of Morningside Nannies in Houston and the president of the International Nanny Association.

Many of the African-American nannies who make up 40 percent of her work force fear that people of their own color will be “uppity and demanding,” said Ms. Cascio, who is white. After interviews, she said, those nannies “will call us and say, ‘Why didn’t you tell me’ ” the family is black?

In several cities, nanny agencies decline to serve certain geographic areas — not because of redlining, these agencies say, but because the nannies, who decide which jobs to take, do not want to work there. “I can’t service everyone,” said Maria Christopoulos-Katris, owner of Nanny Boutique, an agency that turned down Ms. Freeman’s request, even though it claims to cater to the city of Chicago. “I don’t discriminate....”

Similarly, Ms. Jackson was told by some of the best-known nanny agencies in Washington that they did not serve Prince George’s County, Md., a largely black area bordering the District of Columbia.

“We have problems getting people to certain areas because of logistics,” said Barbara Kline, the owner of White House Nannies, which Ms. Jackson contacted. “I’m always worried people will interpret it the wrong way.” She added, “Nannies like to go where other nannies go or where their previous jobs were.”
Another black family experienced racial slights when they privately interviewed applicants for a nanny position in their home:

This summer, Tomasina and Eric Boone of Brooklyn sought a nanny for their baby girl because their jobs — she is the advertising beauty director for Essence magazine, he is a lawyer at Milbank Tweed — require evening hours. After a Manhattan agency did not return Ms. Boone’s call, they searched on their own, and sat through one stomach-curdling interview after another.

One sitter, a Caribbean woman living in Bedford-Stuyvesant, asked about the “colored” people in the Boones’ neighborhood, Clinton Hill. A Russian sitter said enthusiastically that although she had never cared for a black child, she could in this case, because little Emerie Boone, now 7 months old, was light-skinned. All sitters expressed surprise that a black couple could afford a four-story brownstone.

“There were points where I got so frustrated that I picked up my child and I said, ‘Tomasina will show you out,’ ” said Mr. Boone, who is African-American and serves on the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The Boones now use day care. It is inconvenient — the center closes at 6, often forcing Mr. Boone to race to Brooklyn and then back to his Midtown office. But “there is no way we’re doing the whole nanny thing again,” said Ms. Boone, who is African-American and Puerto Rican.

Mr. Boone said, “To have someone refer to other black people as ‘colored,’ what does that teach your child about race?”
What's interesting about the article is how black nannies are choosy about for whom they will work. If you're around enough black folk, you'll see the racial pecking order within the community. For a lot of black nannies, they probably would be treated better by a middle class white family that an equivalently situated black family.

As for the discriminatory aspects to the piece, well, a key aspect of the black experience is that one learns to deal with racial slights. John McWhorter, in his book, "
Losing the Race," argues that lingering elements of racial bigotry will always be with us. The trick is to distinguish between inconvenient racial slights -- which are inevitable, because life's not perfect -- and outright Jim Crow-style racial discrimination -- of which there's very little in the U.S. today. That said, there's always a bitter feeling inside when experiencing disparate treatment on the basis of skin color, especially so when one is educationally and economically successful.

U.S. War Fatalities Exceed Toll From 9/11 Attacks

This Associated Press story reports that the death toll from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has now exceeded the number of those killed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001:

Now the death toll is 9/11 times two.

U.S. military deaths from Iraq and Afghanistan now surpass those of the most devastating terrorist attack in America’s history, the trigger for what came next.

The latest milestone for a country at war came Friday without commemoration. It came without the precision of knowing who was the 2,974th to die in conflict. The terrorist attacks killed 2,973 victims in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

An Associated Press count of the U.S. death toll in Iraq rose to 2,696. Combined with 278 U.S. deaths in and around Afghanistan, the 9/11 toll was reached, then topped, the same day. The Pentagon reported Friday the latest death from Iraq, an as-yet unidentified soldier killed a day earlier after his vehicle was hit by a roadside bombing in eastern Baghdad.

Not for the first time, war that was started to answer death has resulted in at least as much death for the country that was first attacked, quite apart from the higher numbers of enemy and civilians killed, too.

Historians note that this grim accounting is not how the success or failure of warfare is measured, and that the reasons for conflict are broader than what served as the spark.

The body count from World War II was far higher for Allied troops than for the crushed Axis. Americans lost more men in each of a succession of Pacific battles than the 2,390 people who died at Pearl Harbor in the attack that made the U.S. declare war on Japan. The U.S. lost 405,399 in the theaters of World War II.

Read the whole thing. These numbers are mostly significant to opponents of the war, because it gives them dramatic markers in which to inflame antiwar sentiment in the public. The Associated Press article itself reveals a routine liberal slant in arguing that the poor have been overrepresented among the war dead. Yet their own reporting indicates that half of all war fatalities come from middle income communities. Also, a recent report from the Heritage Foundation debunks the "underprivileged thesis" in liberal attacks on current U.S. military enlistment. The data show that in fact recruitment patterns since 1999 demonstrate strong middle class representation in the military.

New Orleans is Ground Zero in New War on Poverty

This USA Today article examines the federal government's challeges in fighting poverty in New Orleans more than a year after Hurricane Katrina. Washington's social policy efforts there are being seen as a "Ground Zero" in a new war on poverty:
Fifteen months ago, President Bush stood in Jackson Square, in this city's fashionable French Quarter, and pledged to confront poverty, racial discrimination and a "legacy of inequality."

Now, as Democrats prepare to take charge of Congress, advocates for the poor say New Orleans symbolizes the government's fits and starts in addressing poverty. They want lawmakers to increase the minimum wage, cut interest rates on college loans and expand health insurance to more poor children.

Democrats say they intend to raise the profile of anti-poverty issues. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who will take over a key housing subcommittee, plans hearings here next month. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., incoming chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, plans to examine how poverty negatively affects economic growth, sprawl, crime, health care, even national security. "We can't afford poor folks," he says.

Any broader war on poverty will have to wait. The annual budget deficit is nearly $300 billion. "It's a reflection of the political realities," says Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., outgoing chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. "The public is fed up with these growing deficits."

Politics, too, presents a problem. Conservatives led by Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., don't want to spend heavily on social programs. Even liberals such as Rangel don't want to raise taxes. Senate Republicans can block almost anything from passing. "I don't see a concentrated war on poverty by Democrats," says Jared Bernstein of the liberal Economic Policy Institute. "But you are going to see a couple of well-chosen battles."

Like many, Tracie Washington remembers the Bush speech.

"I bought it," says Washington, director of the NAACP's Gulf Coast Advocacy Center. Today, she says, "It's like that old Wendy's commercial — 'Where's the beef?' "

"There's been very little done for health care, very little done for mental health services, virtually nothing done to shore up and support the criminal justice system," says Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. "For all the president saying 'We'll do whatever it takes,' it hasn't quite happened that way."

The majority of New Orleans' poorest residents remain outside the city, unable to return because of a shortage of habitable housing and soaring prices. More than 200,000 former residents are in the nationwide diaspora that Katrina created, about 80% of them black.

Tenants have yet to receive anything from a federally financed program intended to help people get back into their homes, even though more than 50,000 units of rental housing were destroyed. The federal government plans to replace many of those with private, mixed-income developments.

Making the immediate shortage worse is the Department of Housing and Urban Development's plan to tear down more than 4,000 units of public housing. HUD says it would cost $130 million to rehabilitate the run-down projects. Low-income-housing advocates have gone to court to block the move. HUD now says it will be phased in.

It has been left to groups such as Catholic Charities USA and ACORN, which represents low-income families, to gut flooded houses. "The joke here is that we need a New Orleans Study Group," ACORN founder Wade Rathke says.

The federal government has invested billions into housing, health care and education, but red tape and a fear of fraud have slowed the flow of funds. The administration wants to change systems that were failing before Katrina struck:

Housing. It's trying to turn renters into homeowners with jobs and rent-to-own programs. The state is readying $1.5 billion in rental aid to landlords and $1.7 billion in low-income tax credits.

Health care. It wants to replace the old two-tiered system, in which the poor were relegated to Charity Hospital, by having the Department of Veterans Affairs join Louisiana State University in building a modern medical complex.

Education. It's investing in charter schools, where parents play a direct role, rather than rebuilding the old public school system that was one of the nation's worst.

Donald Powell, the federal coordinator of Gulf Coast rebuilding, is frustrated with the delays. "We need to be very resourceful about finding ways to speed up the process," he says.

Andy Kopplin, executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, says aid was slow to arrive and tied with red tape. "We asked for significantly more than we got in lots of categories," he says.

Despite Bush's speech on poverty Sept. 15, 2005, little has been done to address it nationally.

The need is clear: Census Bureau figures show that about 37 million Americans, or 12.6%, lived in poverty in 2005 (annual income of $19,971 or less for a family of four). The poverty rate has been rising since 2000. About 8.8 million families have severe housing-cost problems, up 33% since 2000.

New Orleans had the eighth-lowest median income in the nation among big cities in 2005 — $30,771 — before Katrina. Orleans Parish had the sixth-highest poverty rate among counties, 24.5%.

Some experts say that if disaster struck elsewhere, poor city dwellers would fare worst. "We're under-investing in our urban core," says John Powell, executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University.

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have pledged to vote early next year to raise the federal minimum wage, stagnant since 1997, to $7.25 an hour over two years from $5.15. That would have an immediate impact in states such as Louisiana that have no minimum wage laws.

The leaders also will try to reduce interest rates on student loans and expand the Children's Health Insurance Program to some of the 9 million children still uninsured.

The piece concludes with mention of former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, who plans to focus on equality and poverty in his upcoming bid for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. A new anti-poverty effort cannot be a rehash of the Great Society social programs, where billions of dollars spent on anti-poverty relief contributed to the weakening of individual initiative and self-sufficiency. New anti-poverty efforts need to focus on fostering education, employment, and mobility. The working poor need to know they'll have support, such as housing subsidies, health care, and child care tuition assistance.

Monday, December 25, 2006

The Enduring Message of "It's a Wonderful Life"

I watched "It's a Wonderful Life" last night. It's just over the last few years that I've become a big fan of the movie. I had a terrible flu on Christmas Eve a couple of years ago , and I stayed in bed most of the night. That was the first time that I really watched the entire film carefully. It's a great movie, and as I get older I've come to appreciate more and more the classic films of the Studio Era in motion picture history. I especially enjoy looking at the fashion, automobiles, and the small-town, Americana feel to many of the old pictures.

On Saturday, the Los Angeles Times had
a great piece on the powerful and lasting message of "It's a Wonderful Life." It turns out that director Frank Capra almost botched the filming of Jimmy Stewart's "prayer scene," in which George Bailey, Stewart's character, is contemplating financial disaster and whether he can go on:

It is arguably one of the most magnetic moments ever captured on film. This enduring celluloid juncture from 1946's "It's A Wonderful Life" can be summoned to mind by merely mentioning "the prayer scene." In it, a tearfully reduced George Bailey — played by Jimmy Stewart — sits at a bar and contemplates taking his own life, then clasps his hands and quietly asks for God's intervention.

And while filming this key moment, this pivotal point in the picture, Frank Capra goofed — big time.

Despite a reputation for being fastidiously well prepared, the veteran director had no idea that his star would turn on the waterworks and deliver such an impassioned, intimate performance on the first take. It was something overwhelming even for Stewart himself.

So the cameras rolled, the music and bustle in the bar erupted, and the scene played out — but when it was over, Capra realized his angle was too distant. And he had failed to capture a close-up of the emotionally draining scene. Capra apologized and asked his Oscar-winning star to replicate it, but a spent Stewart knew he'd nailed it and couldn't fathom a re-creation as effective as the one he'd just poured out.

To remedy the situation, during postproduction the director and his editor manually and painstakingly moved in — frame by frame. It created what appears to be an optical zoom.

Luckily for Capra, the result was near perfection.

It's no mystery why this year the American Film Institute named Capra's postwar classic "It's a Wonderful Life" the most inspiring motion picture ever made.

To most, it's an enriching, sentimental Christmas favorite not to be missed — almost sacrilege when viewed during any other season.

It's all the more remarkable that this homespun movie, which was not initially envisioned as a "holiday" film, has become so entrenched in popular culture, such a beloved tradition for families to share.

Oddly enough, the film was unceremoniously released during Christmas week of 1946. Never mind the yuletide flavor, the wintry snowdrifts in Bedford Falls and the holly wreath George Bailey carries slung around his arm — this Jimmy Stewart-Donna Reed romance was originally scheduled to open in January 1947. But RKO Studios knew it had something special and rushed it into theaters a few weeks early to meet the deadline for Academy Award consideration that year.

Capra shot much of the film on a specially constructed quaint-town set located at RKO's ranch in the San Fernando Valley — a site that has long been overtaken by property development. In media interviews at the time, Capra did not portray it as a holiday film. In fact, he said he saw it as a cinematic remedy to combat what he feared was a growing trend toward atheism and to provide hope to the human spirit. In a moment of possible revisionism decades later, Capra said that he also realized that with the holiday season comes an inherent vulnerability in all humans, and that this uplifting tale might just ride on that sentiment.

Without question, however, is the fact that audiences trusted Capra to deliver such patriotisms, all neatly wrapped with a ribbon and bow. Like "Meet John Doe" (1941), about a lie that sparks a political movement. Some critics accused Capra of presenting a "naive" faith in the common man within a syrupy-slick presentation. So skillful in his flair for filmmaking and eliciting emotion, his titles were once called "Capra-corn."

But the Oscar-winning director has had the last laugh."

It's a Wonderful Life" keeps popping its way back into homes on television, in commercials, on DVD, routinely broadcast twice each season on NBC. (It's being broadcast Sunday night.)

Capra, an Italian-born filmmaker who gave us such early classics as "It Happened One Night" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," died in 1991, but not before witnessing "It's a Wonderful Life" take on iconic wings of sort when television began airing it regularly in the 1970s.

The movie transcended time and soared well beyond his imagination.

"It's the damnedest thing I've ever seen," Capra told the Wall Street Journal in 1984. "The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I'm like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I'm proud ... but it's the kid who did the work. I didn't even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea."

In probably his best-loved role, and a dark one at that, Stewart plays selfless everyman George Bailey through a tumultuous timeline that climaxes in near suicide on Christmas Eve. In answer to his desperate prayer at the bar, George is rescued by an unlikely angel with a smiling marshmallow face — a little fellow named Clarence — who convinces him that life is precious and that each man's life touches another with untold influence.

"I think, as the story unfolds," Stewart explained years ago, "it becomes clear that the movie is about hope, love and friendship."There has been no shortage of fans of that message over the years, including director Steven Spielberg, who once said: " 'It's a Wonderful Life' shows that every human being on this Earth matters — and that's a very powerful message."
A very powerful message indeed!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Homeless Families Struggle Amid Holiday Affluence

This weekend's USA Today has an gripping article on Christine Fuller, who is homeless despite having full-time employment. Fuller's story exemplifies the social welfare policy challenges for helping the working poor, and is a reminder of the plight of the disadvantaged amid society's affluence:

Christine Fuller finds holiday kindness at unexpected moments, such as before sunrise at a bus stop 7 miles from the White House.

A bus driver sees her switching buses each weekday morning at 6:15 with four neatly dressed children, ages 6 to 10, as she escorts them to a before-school program. The driver lauds their behavior and says he wants to give each child a Christmas present.

Fuller doesn't know his name. He doesn't know hers. She says presents would be fine.

The bus driver also doesn't know that Fuller and her children are homeless. They've been living at a shelter since September. Fuller has a full-time job that pays her $23,000 a year but says she can't afford an apartment in this affluent suburb of Washington, D.C., where a typical two-bedroom apartment rents for $1,225 a month.

The problem of poverty and homelessness — and how difficult it is to escape — is poignantly illustrated in the hit movie The Pursuit of Happyness, which stars Will Smith and his son, Jaden.

At least 2 million Americans, many of whom have jobs and families, are homeless at some point over the course of a year, says Philip Mangano, executive director of the White House's Interagency Council on Homelessness.

"It's very traumatic for children," Mangano says.

It can be particularly so in a place like Falls Church and surrounding Fairfax County, one of the nation's wealthiest areas with a median household income of $94,600.

Fuller, 32, tries to ward off any trauma by focusing on routines and maintaining dignity in tough circumstances.

Her day starts at 3:45 a.m., in the two-bedroom, 300-square-foot unit her family occupies at Shelter House, a county facility that can house seven families.

Fuller gets ready for her job as a dispatch assistant at a courier service, then at 5 a.m. wakes her boys, William, 10, and Isaiah, 7. After she gets them going, she rouses the girls, Beatrice, 8, and Jhavona, 6.

"Mom, our life is so boring," she says the kids tell her. "You sound like a drill sergeant."

They're out the door by 5:45 a.m. with a snack in hand to catch the first public bus. They switch buses before arriving at a before-school program that opens at 6:30 a.m. The kids have subsidized breakfast and lunch at school.

"My 7-year-old knows every bus route," says Fuller, sitting on a vinyl couch in her unit's small living area.

After dropping off the kids, she boards another bus to get to her job, which she has held for three years, by 7:30 a.m. She works until 5 p.m. and then takes a bus to pick up her kids at an after-school program. She pays $177 monthly for the child care. The unsubsidized cost for four kids in similar programs in Fairfax County is $1,500.

Being homeless during the holidays can be particularly grim, but this month Fuller and her children have received several gifts from charitable residents, from dolls to firetrucks to a microwave oven. Such gifts reflect both the generosity of individuals and the same community wealth that has hindered Fuller's ability to find her own place to live.

"Apartments cost a lot here," says Fuller, a never-married high school dropout who has six children in all. The two oldest — a 16-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl — live with a family friend in a nearby town and are in their high school's marching band.

Fuller says she can't move to a more affordable city or distant suburb because her job is near downtown Washington and she has no car. Despite the difficulty of living in such an expensive area, she's also reluctant to go elsewhere because she grew up here, and her mother and grandparents live nearby.

Fuller receives child support from the father of one of her children. She doesn't know where one of the fathers is, and another helps out with child care on weekends. But when it comes to finances, she's largely on her own.

Families with children make up about 40% of the nation's homeless people, according to a USA TODAY analysis of government data. Those in homeless families represent about 55% of the roughly 2,000 homeless people in Fairfax, which has about 1 million residents.

More than half the single homeless adults in Fairfax are white, while 65% of those in homeless families are African-American, according to a county report released this month.

Two of every five homeless adults in Fairfax works, says Gerry Connolly, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors. "A lot of people benefit from our vibrant economy, but others are cut out," he says. He cites the loss of hundreds of affordable housing units during the recent real estate boom.

"When you meet the (homeless) children, your heart breaks," Connolly says, "because they haven't done anything to deserve it."

He says Fairfax, like many jurisdictions across the nation, has stepped up efforts to find more places for the homeless to stay, either through their friends and relatives or churches, motels and shelters. It doesn't always work. He says some people live in their cars.

"We've even had people living in the woods under tarps," he says.

For most of her life, Fuller lived with her grandparents in a three-bedroom house in nearby Arlington County. When the grandparents moved to a two-bedroom apartment in Arlington, officials said it was too small for Fuller and her children to also live there, so she spent six months in a shelter. She moved into a three-bedroom basement apartment in Fairfax County, but officials there deemed it a fire hazard.

Fuller and her four youngest children then spent three months in a motel room paid for by Fairfax County before a unit became available at Shelter House.

"We're helping the working homeless," shelter director Joe Meyer says.

The children "know this isn't their own place," Fuller says. They can't invite kids over for play dates or birthday parties. She adds that like many youths who struggle to cope with the trauma of being homeless, her children have suffered from mood swings, depression and other problems.

"I know I have to better myself for my kids," she says. She tells her kids to "stay in school, … stay out of jail, stay out of trouble."

Fuller says when she sees her 14-year-old daughter, she warns her: "Don't make the mistakes I made" by, among other things, getting pregnant while in high school.

At Shelter House, government workers make sure homeless families get food stamps as well as benefits from Medicaid and mental health and social services agencies. Parents such as Fuller must attend evening workshops on parenting, alcohol and drug awareness, financial planning and job-seeking skills.

Families are expected to stay no more than three months, but they can stay longer if they have no other housing options and make progress toward self-sufficiency, Meyer says. He says Fuller's family will be able to stay until she can get a subsidized apartment.

"They've been a great help," Fuller says. She initially chafed at the shelter's 10 p.m. curfew and visitor restrictions, but says she's learning to manage money better and pay off $5,000 in credit card debt.

Fuller says she's not buying Christmas toys for her children, only necessities. Sometimes they tease her, calling her "the Grinch."

Fairfax board Chairman Connolly's concern about the impact of homelessness on families is reflected in the waiting list for the 32 units the county has available at Shelter House and two other facilities. The list is approaching 90 families.

A report released last week by the U.S. Conference of Mayors that analyzed homelessness in 23 cities said that in most of the cities, some homeless families have to split up in order to find shelter.

"This is just unacceptable," says Trenton, N.J., Mayor Douglas Palmer, the conference's president.

The Conference of Mayors report says requests for shelter rose 9% last year in the 23 cities surveyed.

Housing affordability is the top problem, says Dennis Culhane, a University of Pennsylvania professor of social welfare policy. He says the government needs to use tax credits to push more investors and developers to build affordable apartments. He says it's much cheaper to give a housing subsidy to a homeless family than to put the family in a shelter, which can cost $50,000 for a 14-month stay.

Mangano says federal spending on housing subsidies has risen in recent years, but the number of available units hasn't increased because of rising real estate prices.

Fuller is an amazing woman and I wish her well. She needs to increase her income to be able to afford an apartment in her area. Her job with the courier service is not paying enough, so she'll need to upgrade skills to be competitive in seeking higher paying employment. She'll need continued public and private support in paying for childcare, food coupons, and eventually housing subsidies. She'll also benefit from a large Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which has been a successful, bipartisan policy to help the working poor. The absent fathers should also be contributing more to the well-being of their children.