Brother, Can You Spare a Trillion?

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Any day now. Maybe next week. Soon. Eventually. It is reasonable to expect, let’s say, that the Congress will figure out how to borrow the money to pay the bills it has already agreed to incur.

It is more than reasonable to want the federal government to spend something closer to the money it collects. It is undoubtedly true that spending a lot more than what is collected year after year ends a country up deep in debt, with a debased currency and severely restricted freedom of movement when it comes to spending decisions in the future.

After that, it gets complicated.

In the weeks since the debate over raising the debt ceiling began two different versions of the future have been presented to voters who, at this point, have every right to be entirely confused. Smashing into the borrowing limit will either be:

a)   a minor inconvenience

b)   the end of the world.

Somebody’s wrong. How much appetite do you have for finding out? On last week’s Destination Casa Blanca we had a spirited give and take about what it will all mean. Left, right, and center there was agreement that of all the near-term outcomes of failing to raise the debt limit, few possible outcomes left the United States in a stronger financial position and its people better off.

No panelists doubted that the country has to borrow less and collect more. How you get there now was where agreement unraveled. Fiscal conservatives argued that both spending and taxes have to be reduced. Liberals argued that sudden severe restriction in government spending would immediately shrink the economy, making recovery, new jobs, and new demand even more unlikely.

It’s not like the arguments have no basis in reality. But when you start to add context and qualifiers some of the rigid, ideological positions get harder and harder to stick with. It is appealing to assume that the huge, clanking, machine of the federal government could simply pay the bills we all like (to veterans, senior citizens, foreign creditors) and leave the others for another day once there’s a shortage of cash. There’s plenty of evidence it won’t work that way.

Oh, and you other guys (and gals): painting Sen. Mitch McConnell into a corner doesn’t reduce the deficit, doesn’t enhance government revenue, doesn’t put Medicare on a sound financial footing, or solve Social Security’s (less serious) problems. Had a look at your 401k balance in the last week or two? The uncertainty about what happens in a few weeks is dragging on the indexes more than the general conviction that big growth and recovery is not just around the corner.

Public opinion polls would indicate that even if the president hasn’t won on policy, he may be winning the argument in the eyes of the public. The Republicans don’t look like they have much running room at this point. If August 2nd arrives with no agreement. Take a look at excerpts of the program at www.hitn.tv/dcb Add your own opinions, suggestions, even your fiscal wish list. How does the country get on a sounder financial footing? Is it possible to do it without asking for tax increases? Of all the thousands of things the federal government pays for, got any suggestions about what we might have to do without? I’d love to see them here.

War Without End. Amen?

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Almost ten years ago, a small American-led force overthrew the Taliban government of Afghanistan. The invasion had been fast, that Afghan government had been weak, and you could have been tempted in 2002–before the ashes in Lower Manhattan had cooled or the Pentagon had  been rebuilt—to hope that the allied commitment wouldn’t be too long.

In just a few weeks the 10th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks will come and go, and American and NATO forces, along with Australians and others, will still be on the ground in Afghanistan. Al Qaida-associated fighters, remnants of Taliban forces, and other fighters who’ve opposed the invasion and its aftermath have never surrendered. They continue to use non-conventional warfare to launch attacks in public places, killing soldiers and civilians. In fact, when you look at civilian deaths in Afghanistan last year you find, for all the complaints about NATO drones and heavy-handed allied soldiering, more than 80% of all civilian deaths are caused by anti-government, anti-American, insurgent fighters.

Instead of winding down in its death toll, last year, 2010, was the bloodiest year of the war, taking as many American lives as 2001-04 combined. That has people across America…and Britain, Germany, Canada, and many other countries asking, “How do you know a war is over, and how do you know when it’s time to come home?”

That conversation, sparked again by the killing of al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, the President’s announcement of a drawdown of forces, and a financial crisis, has taken on greater urgency. The United States has been in Afghanistan a long time. Thousands of American lives have been lost, billions of dollars spent, to make Afghanistan a place that would no longer become dangerous and unstable, a threat to its neighbors and countries around the world. There has been an elected government for years, weak and corrupt as it is accused of being it is certainly more representative of all the factional and ethnic divisions in Afghanistan than the Taliban had been.

Hold on though… In September 2001, the United States was attacked by an enemy that had been given safe haven by the Taliban government of Afghanistan. A few months later, Afghanistan was invaded, a new government installed, the Taliban put to flight, al Qaida neutralized and put under intense pressure, and at long last, its leader killed in Pakistan. The United States and its allies have accomplished their war aims, right? Unless the new goal is some unachievable set of short-term targets, goes one side of the current debate, you can get out now and let Afghans do the rest.

No way, not yet, the other side chimes in. The Taliban are still inflicting horrible casualties on civilians and soldiers, taking their mayhem and death right into the heart of Kabul, the Afghan capital. While the steady killing of Taliban and al Qaida elements has driven some of their members to reconcile with the new political system, there are hard-core resisters who will never agree to come into the political system. As with some of the South American insurgencies, there are elements of the Afghan resistance that have shifted to criminality as a way of life…smuggling, armed robbery, the drug trade filling the coffers of armed groups that terrorize civilians then melt into the vast countryside. Leave now, they say, and the United States runs the real risk of losing all the gains its made in the last ten years in Afghanistan. Without the steadying hands (and billions of aid) coming from the United States and its allies, goes the argument, there is a real risk that the thousands of soldiers who have died trying to free Afghanistan from its recent history will have died to accomplish nothing there.

The people who make both sets of arguments both have facts on their side. Neither is operating out of some political fantasy where you shape the arguments and the facts to fit the desired outcome. It is true that Afghanistan is in many ways a better place than it was before the invasion. It is true that the United States has spent billions of dollars and thousands of lives to establish a corrupt, shaky, government in Kabul protected by security forces that flee in battle and disappear and head home when they feel the need to leave duty. It is true that al Qaida has been reduced in its capacity to unleash attacks around the world, and true that people willing to kill people by killing themselves are still available.

So maybe the economic argument is the clincher. Perhaps the prospect of fighting in Afghanistan for years to come with borrowed money is so unattractive that some who were ready to double-down in the war will instead pronounce the Afghan rehab “good enough.”  And there are plenty of Americans ready to agree it seems. There is a steady shift in the polls toward war-weariness and readiness to withdraw faster than the President has in mind. Like right now. An elected government, dead Osama, an exhausted military and endless bills have them ready to cry “uncle” and bring the forces home.

This week’s Destination Casa Blanca featured a debate over how, and when to get out of Afghanistan. Listen to excerpts of the program at www.hitn.tv/dcb and add your own comments, and your own wish list for Afghan withdrawal. Have we finished the job? Or, despite the cost, sacrifice, and pain of continued war is their no choice but to keep on standing up a new country? I look forward to reading what you have to say.

A New World, Not Here Yet

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So you’re at the doctor.

A nurse takes a history, and some vital measurements. Heart rate is checked. Perhaps an EKG checks the electrical activity of your heart. You give a vial of blood, so it’s typed, checked for cholesterol and sugars (and if you’re a man, prostate specific antigen, or PSA). At that point, the practice, or hospital, knows a lot about you. You’ve surrendered the fluids, physical information, and other information about yourself because you want someone who really knows about the workings of the human body to check all the info, combine it with the other things now known about you, to come to a conclusion about your overall health.

What happens now?

For a long time that information remained “siloed,” maintained at the doctor’s office or clinic as part of its records until the next time you came for a visit or for treatment. At that time more information might be taken, combined with earlier information to create a pattern over time, even more valuable now than just one day’s information.

If you need to visit a specialist, or head to a hospital for further care, you might need to handcarry the documents from one place to another, or wait until someone at the first place makes paper copies, and drops them in the mail to be examined by the next place you visit for treatment. It’s slow. It’s wasteful. It adds to costs but adds nothing to the effectiveness of medical treatment.

We’re told a better world is on the way. Making all health records digital will make the accumulated knowledge of patients’ health and history quickly and efficiently stored and transported. When it’s critical, let’s say in the case of sudden heart problems, a patient’s history can be in an emergency room doctor’s hands in minutes. Cutting through the mountain of paper created in the exchanges between health care providers and insurance companies will add efficiency and cut cost. People will be able to check their own records online, breaking the monopoly of health care providers over access to that information. Medical researchers will be able to quickly and efficiently put together data bases to check on the effectiveness of drugs and surgical techniques in the treatments of specific illnesses, and further slice and dice those numbers by age, gender, racial and ethnic origin.

Sounds pretty good, right? A lot of places have already moved to store their records in digital form. It costs money, and takes time, and since there’s no requirement they do so many places haven’t yet taken the plunge. One proposal to speed the move would penalize Medicare providers by cutting back on their reimbursements every year, until a maximum of 5% is reached. For now, however, the health care providers with the deepest pockets have embraced digital record keeping most quickly, the very places that treat the patients who are most likely to be educated, have insurance, and be technically savvy. In other words, the providers most likely to have gone digital treat the patients most likely to have health insurance, get regular health care, and be most able to access their own records on line.

I guess it’s no surprise that the digital divide already evident between big demographic groups is showing up again in this new form. Latinos, already the most underserved and underinsured of all Americans, tend to use clinics, doctors, and hospitals where it is more difficult and less likely to have their records and histories quickly and efficiently follow them through their treatment.

Absent legal requirements, will the places that haven’t moved to digital record keeping make the investment? Without widespread adoption of digital record keeping, can it ever live up to its potential to make care more effective, more efficient and less costly? And as this new world of medical record keeping really takes hold, who will get the thousands of new jobs created in the field? Will the medical divide and the digital divide combine to create a new divide, leaving Latinos out of the money in this fast-growing field?

All good questions, for which there aren’t good answers yet.

The latest edition of Destination Casa Blanca brought together medical, management, insurance, and computer experts to talk about the possibilities and the challenges in moving to digital medical records. They made a compelling and interesting case for making the investment, and the strong potential returns available from moving out of paper and into the zeroes and ones of computer memory. You can listen to excerpts at www.hitn.tv/dcb

We’ll have to leave for another program a more thorough examination of privacy concerns. Medical records that are made infinitely transferable are in danger of being transferred to people who shouldn’t see them right along with those who need to see them. When an individual patient gives consent to have records sent to one practice, that doesn’t mean that patient wants others to see those very private medical matters. Been treated for a sexually transmitted disease? Don’t want all the other medical professionals you consult to know? Can you control the release of the information?

Let’s say you were successfully treated as a teenager for mental or emotional problems. It’s now 20 years later, you are a mid-career professional, and need a medical exam as part of a new job entry process. Can you pick and choose what parts of your past you choose to reveal? Once upon a time, all you had to do is simply start getting treatment from a new set of doctors, and parts of your past had no reason to follow you all through life. Will that be possible now?

And who owns the information? You? Your doctor? The insurance company that’s paid claims based on information supplied by health care providers? The endless transferability, and the ease with which these new records can be combined, mixed and matched, and peeked at provides whole new ways they can be abused. Though there’ll no doubt be new legal protections for digital medical records, brand new legal problems are bound to follow. With all the new ease, convenience, and efficiency, you may have to surrender privacy and peace of mind. In medical records as in life, you don’t get something for nothing.

Obama, Puerto Rico, and Puerto Ricans

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Few political columnists in the United States are Puerto Rican. Few political columnists in the United States follow the twists and turns in the debates over the island’s status closely, if at all.

Yet, as the President boarded Air Force One for a five-hour visit to La Isla del Encanto you saw and heard it again and again; in newspaper columns, in cable TV commentaries, on radio and the web…the President’s visit wasn’t really about the almost four million American citizens living in the Associated Free State but really about the five or so million Puerto Ricans living on the mainland, many eligible to vote in 2012’s general elections. Hey, on second thought, it wasn’t even about all those Boricuas, only a minority of them. The ones in New York, Chicago, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, I was told with great confidence, are loyal Democratic Party voters in heavily Democratic states, so the President didn’t need to make the sale. No, in fact, the Mr. Obama dragged the First Lady down to the heat of a Puerto Rican June to strut his 2012 stuff in front of the voters of Central Florida…who now include hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans who may, just may, dilute the Republican voting strength of the Miami-Dade Cubans. The President, you see, must win Florida to remain president after January 2013 and that’s why he was in San Juan.

Really?

Please excuse my skepticism. At a time of heavy unemployment, home foreclosure, soaring public and private college tuition, painfully high gas prices, a 10-year war in Afghanistan, not to mention severe economic distress in Puerto Rico including a jobless rate almost twice that of the Mainland, Florida Puerto Ricans were going to make their choice based on an airport rally accompanied by Puerto Rico’s Republican governor.

When he was campaigning for president, and running in Puerto Rico’s Democratic Presidential Primary, then-Sen. Obama promised to visit the island as president, and to respect the stated wishes of islanders about their future status. If they chose the status quo of Commonwealth, statehood, or national independence, the candidate promised to take that seriously enough to urge the Congress to act. It was, in fact, an assurance little different from that made by American presidents for decades. Now President, Barack Obama repeated that assurance during his trip.

For those of you who don’t follow this issue, the status question is never as simple as it looks. Following a close second behind having the material necessities of daily life, the future status of Puerto Rico has shaped island politics since Uncle Sam first allowed the elections of a representative government and a native chief executive. The debate over status has distorted Puerto Rican politics in a fundamental way, by creating parties that take one side or another in the status debates rather than different political philosophies. The Popolares, the party of the first Puerto Rican governor, Luis Munoz Marin, has defended Commonwealth since it helped invent it more than a half-century ago. The Progresistas are the party of statehood. The Indipendentistas want to end the 113-year old relationship that began with victory over Spain and annexation, and create a future for Puerto Rico as an independent nation.

The current governor, Luis Fortuno, is a leader of the PNP, the New Progressives, and a member of the Republican Party. When he was Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner, a non-voting member of Congress, he caucused with the House Republicans. Every bit as much an estadista, and every bit as much a penepe, the current Resident Commissioner, Pedro Pierluisi, is a registered Democrat and caucuses with that party on Capitol Hill.

We had a terrific conversation last week on Destination Casa Blanca covering the politics and policy of the President’s visit, and giving a thorough airing to the debates over Puerto Rico’s future. (You can watch excerpts at www.hitn.tv/dcb) If you are living on the Mainland, island-born, or Puerto Rican by heritage, what impact does the President’s visit have on how you will choose in 2012? Does it have any impact at all? After his assurances that he’ll respect Puerto Ricans’ wishes after an upcoming vote, are you any more optimistic that the status question can be settled in some durable way?

I wonder if the debate will ever be settled, can ever be settled once and for all. After the last several plebiscites, and in repeated public opinion polls since, no preference gets much more than 50%. The pattern over the last 25 years has been sub-50% totals for both continued association with the United States and for statehood, with independence polling in single digits.

The idea that a let’s say, 54% vote for statehood would trigger a rush to put a 51st star on the US flag is a stretch. The idea that a pro-status quo margin of 51%-44%-5% would end the pro-statehood campaign because “the people have spoken” is also a little hard to believe. And while we’re at it, are we all so sure that the Congress would rush to embrace a Spanish-speaking territory of 4 million people with a per capita income much smaller than the poorest of the 50 states? Would Puerto Ricans be ready to bargain on the primacy of Spanish in the daily life of their homeland?

Before we get to those difficult questions, there’s the matter of organizing a vote. The Puerto Ricans living elsewhere in the world do want to be heard on the future status of their ancestral home. But how? Should an architect in central Florida, a schoolteacher in the Bronx, and a bodega owner in Chicago get the same say on the future of Puerto Rico as a taxpayer and homeowner in Rio Piedras, Cabo Rojo or Humacao? When an American born and raised in Boston leaves for the warmer winters of California, can ties of culture, sentiment, loyalty, or passion convince the registrars of Massachusetts to let that Californian continue to vote in Boston? In the final analysis, is there something different about being Puerto Rican than being from Oklahoma or Texas? And can you make that argument at the same time as half of you are insisting that being from Puerto Rico is just like being from Oklahoma or Texas?

Questions! Questions! They’re not easy ones, all continuing challenges for Puerto Ricans wherever they are, and all raised once again by the President’s quick flight to San Juan. Watch the excerpts, read listener comments, then add your own! See you next week.

30 Years of Living—And Dying, With HIV

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I was working in New York when the first headlines began to appear in newspapers. The New York Times headline was like many that appeared in 1981—RARE CANCER SEEN IN 41 HOMOSEXUALS.

The outstanding medical journalist, Dr. Lawrence Altman wrote, “The cause of the outbreak is unknown, and there is as yet no evidence of contagion. But the doctors who have made the diagnoses, mostly in New York City and the San Francisco Bay area, are alerting other physicians who treat large numbers of homosexual men to the problem in an effort to help identify more cases and to reduce the delay in offering chemotherapy treatment.”

Americans were struggling to cope with a new disease with only incomplete information available, setting off panic and fear. From inside the news business that struggle looked a little different. Our newsrooms were the gatekeepers for the little that was known. How heavily would we report on the condition of Rock Hudson, the closeted movie idol who denied he was being ravaged by AIDS, then conceded he was? Would we allow families mourning their sons, suddenly dead at 24, 25 years old, to explain their deaths as cancer, pneumonia, “natural causes,” and keep AIDS out of the obituary?

As the years passed, the picture began to fill in: a virus, that came to be called the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, caused the disease. The virus was sexually transmitted, but also by sharing needles in intravenous drug use, and eventually found in blood products infecting people who received transfusions during surgery. Before long AIDS was no longer a “gay disease.” It spread like wildfire through the workers hostels near mines and factories in South Africa, spread by prostitutes. Infected workers headed home to rural villages to pass HIV to their wives and unborn children. Abandoned buildings in decaying American cities were rife with needle-sharing, and infected junkies took the disease home from the shooting galleries to their unsuspecting wives.

There were cases like that of Elizabeth Glaser, married to TV star Paul Michael Glaser, who contracted HIV during a hospital stay for childbirth. Glazer passed HIV to her children, to one in utero and to the other through breast milk. She and her daughter were dead in a few years. The case riveted people who thought the new disease would never, could never, touch their lives. Glaser was not a drug user, a prostitute, or a homosexual. She was a wealthy white woman married to a well-known actor. People wondered, who can get it? How? Can I? A 1984 ABC documentary reflected the concerns: it was called “AIDS: What About the Rest of Us?”

This week on Destination Casa Blanca we hosted a conversation on AIDS and the Latino community. Latinos are infected with HIV at a rate higher than the general population. Their disease is detected much later in their disease, in part because the Latino community as a whole is chronically medically underserved. Condom use would protect the uninfected partner in a couple in which one is HIV positive and the other negative. But Latinos often avoid condom use.

Anti-retroviral drugs, or ARVs, have revolutionized AIDS treatment, transforming the disease from a death sentence into a manageable chronic disease. Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health told me recently that young people haven’t watched people rapidly sicken and die with no treatment, so they aren’t as afraid of risky behavior as they should be. For some, the rationale goes, AIDS is bad, but survivable. But in places without strong state systems for ARV distribution, there are waiting lists for the drugs. Our panel of activists held out a lot of hope for improved access to AIDS drugs after health care reform takes full effect in 2014.

So, where do we stand 30 years in?  ARVs have reduced the passing of the disease from mother to child in the womb in the wealthiest and poorest parts of the world. New research points to suppressed virus in populations where ARVs are widely used, so even infected people will be less likely to pass on the disease.

At the same time, it’s important to remember more than half the people in the world who need ARVs can’t get them yet. Remember that seven thousand people a day are infected with HIV, and more than a fifth of the infected population worldwide has never been tested, and is unaware of its status.

More than 25 million people are dead. More than 30 million are infected. At this point…vulnerable populations can still go either way. Individuals and governments can stop the disease in its tracks. Can enough people do what it takes for as long as it takes?

Watch excerpts of this week’s discussion at www.hitn.tv/dcb and add your own comments and memories of 30 years of AIDS.

Are Latinos Part of the Great American Culture Wars?

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For decades, Latinos have been portrayed as “Republicans in Training” by hopeful GOP operatives. After all, we were told, they are Roman Catholic, family-oriented, oppose gay rights and abortion. Not so fast, said Democrats. Because they tend to be poorer, younger, less educated, and highly reliant on public services, the rationale went, Latinos would remain Democratic voters for the foreseeable future.

The exit polls from the last several elections, and the confirmation of the latest census numbers confirmed that Latino voters are a large and growing force in the American electorate. But it’s less than clear whether they will punch their weight, or even decide to play, in the battles of social issues that have marked so much of recent politics?

This is one part of the electorate that will resist easy categorization or simple assignment to one side or another in the country’s family fights. Look at abortion. A majority of Latinos tell public opinion researchers they call themselves “pro-life,” yet Latinas have abortions at a rate out of proportion to their share of the US population. Yeah but… they are more heavily concentrated in the child bearing years so it’s no wonder they terminate more pregnancies, they are more likely poor, and more likely to already have children. Like many Americans, while considering themselves pro-life, they oppose making abortion illegal.

Gay rights? The picture is mixed. Some polls show Latinos heavily oppose gay marriage, others show them narrowly favoring it. Like other Americans, the more likely they are to have a gay friend or family member, they more likely Latinos are to favor gay marriage. When in the opinion sampling questions frame gay marriage as a civil rights issue, Latinos move heavily from one side to the other. Latinos still see themselves as vulnerable to prejudice and discrimination.

When I was a kid, the conversation among Latinos about homosexuals could be scathing… dripping with condescension, disdain, caricature. Hey, I’m old, but I’m not that old. Just as attitudes toward gay people has moved light years in four decades in the wider population, they have moved light years among Latinos.

On this week’s Destination Casa Blanca we were joined by a panel of experts who specialize in understanding the religious, social and political sentiments of Latinos, native born and immigrant, legal and illegal. The subtleties of this fast-growing group was not lost on our guests. They brought a wealth of insights drawn from the latest research.

Latinos are mostly Roman Catholic, but less so with each generation. The richest and poorest Latino families are more likely to remain Catholic. The middle group, assimilating and aspirational, are more likely to join Protestant churches. The churches they join are home to an emotional, sometimes ecstatic form of Christianity. In many cases, the desire to be “more American” by moving to Protestantism is neutralized by the churches themselves being home to lower-income, and often Spanish-speaking congregations.

During the decades when religion surged into American politics, with both big parties attempting to grab some of that energy, Latinos were not big players. Here and there religious right movements and organizations worked hard to bring Latinos on board. For the most part, however, they were included in the wide-angle tableau, but not at the top of the institutional flow chart.

As we get ready for the next big battle for national political power, you can bet political professionals are trying to figure out how and where to include religious appeals in the campaigns, and to whom they’ll appeal. Should campaign surrogates go and speak to pastors? At a time of severe economic distress, will social issues play much of a role in the upcoming campaign at all?

In every election, it seems, the political maturation of the Latino electorate continues. Urban and suburban, religiously more diverse, economically striving, Latinos are more like other Americans than campaign consultants may care to admit. While still more likely than the rest of the population to live in extended families, they become less so with each passing decades. Less likely to divorce than other Americans, their divorce patterns shift closer to American norms as time in the country grows.

Among immigrant groups, Latinos are a little different. Unlike arrivals so many places on the planet, they’ve been coming for a long time, and keep on coming. They have been in the country for centuries, longer than there’s been a country, and they arrived yesterday. They are English- and Spanish-dominant, Catholic, but increasingly Protestant. They won’t stand still for a family portrait. It’s hard to get more than 50 million in the picture.

I’d be interested in hearing from you about how your religious convictions effect your political sentiments. Do the teachings of religious authorities have an impact on the way you vote? When candidates mention their own religious affiliations or use religious language as part of their political appeal, does it bother you, or attract you to a campaign?

Please post your thoughts here. Go to the Destination Casa Blanca web site to watch excerpts of the program, www.hitn.tv/dcb.
As always, you can watch the program in its entirety on Thursday nights, on various cable and satellite providers and streaming over the web at 9pm Eastern. Join us next week as we mark the 30th anniversary of AIDS, and consider the terrible impact on the Latino community.

Better, But Not Even Close to Enough

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It’s easy to find educators, politicians, and parents bemoaning the state of American education. It’s a reliable applause line at political rallies, and unchallenged in newspaper editorial pages: American schools stink.

Except they don’t. Not really. Schools all over the country are turning out students who work hard, take challenging classes, prepare well in K-12 for college-level work. As I watched my two college student kids take their long road through public elementary, middle, and high schools, I met their bright, ambitious, hard-working friends of all races and origins, and find it hard to make blanket statements about schools, schooling, and scholars.

Black and Latino high schoolers graduate at much higher rates than they did a generation ago, though their graduation rate is lower than the American average. Blacks and Latinos headed off to college in tiny numbers in the 1950s and 1960s. When college moved from being an elite experience reserved for a privileged few to a mass experience for young adults in this country, black and brown students headed off to college too. The question is what’s good? What’s good enough? Are we diagnosing our problems fairly? Are we clear about what success means?

There are great teachers, and terrible teachers. There are parents with little education who lean hard on their own kids, convinced that more school will help the next generation live better. And there are parents who simply don’t place enough of a household priority on education.

As all schools wrestle with demands for reform and struggle to figure out how to get better results, there is a people-within-a-people that really can’t wait much longer. Latinos are heading through the front doors of schools throughout the country in numbers that were unimaginable ten and twenty years ago. The largest single age cohort of Latinos is under five, so those numbers will rise even further in the next few school years.

The fastest growing minority group in the country, looking ahead to a majority-minority workforce in twenty years, and a majority-minority country in just over thirty years, isn’t succeeding at school. Little more than half of Latino students graduate high school. Of that number, too few begin college. Of those who go to college, too many don’t finish a two-year or four-year degree. Of those who do finish, too few seek post-graduate education. And once you get to that relatively tiny number of Latinos in grad school, only a relative handful are getting those advanced degrees in so-called STEM areas, science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

It will be interesting to see how long it will take for all Americans to see improving Latino educational achievement as part of their own self-interest. If the largest single part of your school population, and eventually the largest single part of your workforce is not prepared for high-skilled, high-wage work, it will be closer to impossible to maintain the country’s high standard of living. Social Security is a pay-as-you-go system, with today’s wage-earners paying the benefits of today’s retirees. When today’s workers retire, their Social Security checks, in theory, will be paid by the wages of the workers of the 2030s… including hundreds of thousands of today’s low-achieving Latino students.

This week’s program on Destination Casa Blanca presented a smart, well-informed, realistic give-and-take on the challenge of raising student achievement. It is really hard to get millions of schoolkids through more years of education than their own parents had. If your parents dropped out of school before earning a high school diploma, it is far more likely that you’ll drop out of school than that you’ll earn a college diploma. If your parents completed college degrees it is far more likely that you’ll earn a four-year degree than drop out of high school. The socio-economic successes and failures of today’s generation tend to reproduce themselves in the next one.

The trick for America is to break that cycle of correlation. Smash it, and replace it with something better, and you have a better shot at widespread economic progress and greater security. Because we Latinos are so much more present in the United States than we were a generation ago, our failures will effect Americans far beyond our kitchen tables for decades to come.

The wider society will have to break the isolation of Latino kids in some of the most segregated schools in the country. A decision will have to be made to provide competent veteran teachers, and proper physical plants in which to learn, do laboratory work, and burn off excess energy in phys ed and dance. We are all in this. The future prosperity of us all relies on us getting it right.

In May, 2011, it is reasonable to wonder if this country is ready to do the work necessary to rewrite an unpromising American future. Watch the excerpts from the program on the Destination Casa Blanca website, hitn.tv/dcb and comment on the blog at the DCB website or on Huffington Post.

America and the Americas

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During the Bad Old Days of the Cold War, a Latin American country had a few options: you could go it alone, cozy up to Washington, or get friendly with Moscow. All three choices had their problems. The world has transformed over the last 25 years. The Cold War is over. And Latin America is a lot more comfortable with its options.

Looking southward from the State Department, the Hemispheric landscape has also transformed. There are no longer military dictators actively supported or quietly tolerated in order to counter Moscow. There are few allies to be apologized for or explained away for their willingness to jail labor leaders, poets, and land reform advocates. Death squads don’t pop up mid-Mass to gun down a troublesome priest or bishop.

And millions of people, from the San Diego-Tijuana border crossing to Tierra del Fuego are getting richer, and healthier. Not all at once, not fast enough… but in most places the indicators are moving in the right direction. This week Destination Casa Blanca headed to the US Department of State, to the annual meeting of the Council of the Americas. If you used this meeting for a snapshot of the US relationship with the Hemisphere, it’s a pretty good picture.

The gathering, bringing together academics, business people, and elected and appointed officials from around the Americas, heard from the Deputy Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs, Arturo Valenzuela, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, President Mauricio Funes of El Salvador,  the Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and to close the program Felipe Calderon, President of Mexico. The news from all the speakers was pretty good. Economies are growing. Governments serve with the consent of the governed, Neither the United States nor Russia sponsor armies in the field trying to overthrow an established government.

Sec. Clinton brought the proceedings back down to earth during her talk, when she noted that for all the good news too many countries had too many people mired in poverty, poorly educated, poorly trained, badly nourished and underemployed. Free trade agreements were endorsed by all as a good thing; but Panama, Colombia, and Chile’s ability to sell goods into a struggling US market won’t make the masses in those countries rich.

Oil rich Venezuela is in economic trouble even with oil over a hundred dollars a barrel. Cuba can’t provide all that it’s promised to its people, and this year’s Communist Party Congress looked hard for ways to cut loose hundreds of thousands of state employees and reduce food subsidies further. The governments that promised more state control of the economy would bring greater equity and security, failed. But globalization and free trade has yet to deliver for millions in Guatemala, Rio de Janeiro, and Lima.

For decades, the United States promised countries throughout the Hemisphere that moving to elected government and free market economies were going to bring dignity, freedom, and prosperity. That may yet turn out to be true. But, it doesn’t work all at once. The people of Latin America are freer, richer, and living longer. Elected governments are surrendering their places to their successors when their parties lose, without incident (with the notable, and unfortunate exception of Honduras). China and Brazil are steaming ahead and pulling countries like Chile and Peru with them.

The New World is fully at home in the New World. With hard work, smart leaders, and a continuing supply of good luck, Bolivians and Ecuadorans will live as comfortably and well as Chileans do now. And instead of plotting, planning, and pressuring….big powers like the United States will have to outbid and outcompete something its used to having in the Western Hemisphere…competitors.

The Border and The War on Terror

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Mexico’s descent into something like open war over the drug business has created anxiety in the American states closest to the border. If you believe the FBI’s annual crime statistics the big cities on or near that 1400-mile frontier: San Diego, Phoenix, El Paso, are among the safest metropolitan areas in America.

That has not stopped politicians from making two vital national conversations—about immigration and terrorism—part of the same debate. Making it sound like housekeepers, landscapers, housepainters, drywallers, farmworkers and butchers are akin to drug kingpins.

There was an interesting confrontation between Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano at a recent Capitol Hill hearing. Senator McCain told the Secretary, his home state’s former governor and attorney general, that sources in border law enforcement are telling him there are hundreds of spotters for drug gangs installed on the mountains of southern Arizona, guiding shipments across the border to Phoenix, making that city the distribution center for the country’s illicit drug trade.

The Secretary said, firmly but courteously, that there were not hundreds of drug spotters steering cocaine north from Mexico. The Senator said he was being told they were there. Was the Secretary, he asked, implying his law enforcement sources were liars. Too good a politician to walk into that trap, the secretary deflected, but stuck to her point. The two, in the time-honored tradition of Washington hearings, escalated, then exchanged pleasantries and ended the argument. Hundreds of mountain spotters in Arizona? He said-she said.

For a time it looked as if a coalition cobbled together from Republicans and Democrats were ready to make a deal on immigration reform. Then succeeding elections, a shift in power on Capitol Hill and in the White House, and an economy that shed millions of jobs in a very short time changed the calculus around future immigration and the millions already here out of status.

The readiness of Republicans particularly to come to some sort of deal on immigration is gone. “Border Security First” became the mantra, millions were appropriated for beefing up the physical barriers and manpower at the frontier. No amount of success in hardening the border is judged as enough by opponents of comprehensive reform, who can answer every improvement by saying that the Mexican border especially remains dangerous.

For her part, the Secretary of Homeland Security says unauthorized border crossers are now less likely to come to the United States, more likely to be caught if they try, and more likely to be deported if they’re caught. Overall, crossings are down. Sec. Napolitano said on this week’s Destination Casa Blanca that word is out that it’s tougher to get a cross. The efforts of her department have created a deterrence. The difficulty in finding work in the United States can’t help but aid the Dept. of Homeland Security to cut down on illegal entries. Those same economic pressures have dropped estimates of the number of illegal immigrants living in the United States by about a million to 11 million.

Sec. Napolitano told Destination Casa Blanca that trying to seal the border first, and only then go to work on illegal crossers and unauthorized residents makes no sense politically or legally. The various challenges… securing the border, reforming the process for entry, and dealing with the millions already here, have to be done at the same time to have a chance at success, Sec. Napolitano said.

During this week’s program we also spoke with representatives and leaders of various groups deeply immersed in the immigration debate: The National Council of La Raza, Cato, The Center for Immigration Studies, and the Urban Institute. Juan Pedroza’s research for the Urban Institute tells him sending people home, as many who oppose a path to citizenship for illegal residents suggest, will cost far more jobs than they create for unemployed Americans. Illegal residents are deeply enmeshed in the US economy, says Pedroza, and mass deportation will take billions in consumer spending and productivity out of the economy that will take years to replace.

Yes, the millions of illegal workers broke US laws to start their American journeys. Every day they toil with purchased or stolen Social Security numbers, lie on paperwork, or live life off the books breaks laws large and small. These same workers keep some industries economically viable, support their citizen children, buy houses and clothes and furniture and appliances. All the appeal of simple solutions doesn’t mean they would work. Stasis, doing nothing, buys time for employers while driving illegal workers further into the shadows. You and I will still get the benefit of cheap food, cheap child care, and cheap landscaping. We will also pay for hospital care for injured workers dropped off at emergency rooms, and for the schooling of illegally resident children.

You would think doing nothing would be a particularly unappealing suggestion. President Obama has held a series of meetings with Hispanic leaders from across the country to reassure them of his intention to do something about immigration. Columnist Ruben Navarrette notes the president has promised a lot and delivered very little on this issue for a faithful Democratic constituency. After the 2010 midterms, it will be interesting to see how Democrats convinced minority voters, particularly Latinos, that keeping President Obama in the White House is in their continued interest.

The Environment Moves From Necessity to Luxury

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You had to read past the jump from the front page to the inside of the paper to find some of the more obscure points in the budget-cutting deal that avoided a government shutdown a few weeks ago. For those of you who never handle newspapers, I guess you had to scroll wayyyyyy down the web page to find cuts in job training for home energy retrofitting, high speed rail, and other inducements for new pollution-cutting technologies.

         Don’t misunderstand me. I’m well aware that the federal government is spending far more money than it collects, and millions of regular people think it’s time to start addressing that. The interesting notion, to me at least, is that a country short of money might save some by cutting the Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement budget. That approach can only come from a belief that the effects of dirty air, water, and soil have no cost.

         For Latinos, pollution has a tremendous cost. Two out of three Latino families live in places where the air does not meet Clean Air Act standards. Latinos also have high rates of asthma and cardio-pulmonary disease. The lost days of work, the marginally lower levels of productivity for workers with a chronic illness, the reduced years of life are all difficult things to cost out when trying to create a balance sheet for pollution. It’s extremely easy to measure the cost of, let’s say, forcing electric power plants to start investing in technology that allows utilities to move away from coal.

         Coal is dirty. Period. Politicians and industrialists get all dreamy when they use the phrase “clean coal technology,” but there’s just no getting around the fact that even though its relatively cheap, and relatively plentiful, coal is also relatively dirty to burn. A few big electricity companies can already see the sooty writing on the wall and are planning for a post-coal future. Many others are slow-walking change, keeping pressure on their local members of the house and senate, and pleading high cost, hoping no one will force them to change.

         Poor people live downwind from factories and power plants. They live near highways and superfund sites. Members of congress don’t immediate take their calls, and the added costs they bring to society in the form of emergency room visits with kids having asthma attacks rarely get added to the cost analysis of pollution. On this week’s Destination Casa Blanca, environmental advocates told me Latinos have told public opinion researchers they are willing to pay a little more for products, work to save energy, and take other measures to reduce pollution and lessen health effects.

         But the cutbacks in government investment in urban light rail systems and high-speed rail between cities always brings a debate over core values in its wake: will private industry invest in research and development into energy-saving and pollution-reducing technologies without that government subsidy? Or is the government subsidy a necessary up-front cost that creates innovative technologies that private business then turns into profitable industries?

         How you… yes you…answer that question will determine what you make of these budget cuts. Subsidy opponents maintain that if its worth doing, private business will do it without having to get free money from the federal government. Subsidy supporters point out that time and again federally-supported research was a vital ingredient in taking ideas from the drawing board to industrial scale.

         Thousands of unemployed and under-employed Latino construction workers have been sidelined by a stubborn housing crisis that may get worse before it improves. Many of their skills could immediately be used making already existing houses more energy efficient. Job training programs to prepare workers to repair and insulate homes were cut along with many other anti-pollution programs. Right now many of these workers are net recipients of taxpayer aid, supporting their families with unemployment and other government payments.

         Should the government borrow money to pay unemployment benefits? Or should that same government put a worker in a retraining scheme instead, paying him or her money with the expectation of getting some of that money back from enhanced income taxes paid by a newly employed worker? At the end, you still had to borrow the money… but not all borrowing is the same. A new bridge that reduces wasted hours in traffic by the thousands pays you back even if you don’t put up a tollbooth.

         Some of our guests wondered if these cuts were the shape of permanent things to come. In other words, if and when times improved, would the federal government be able to return to some of the programs eliminated to solve the budget crisis? Or, as is more likely, that getting cut during this straitened era make it more likely that cuts will be permanent?

         As always, I invite you to watch excerpts of Destination Casa Blanca online, and talk back to your computer. Argue with me, or blow me a kiss… let me know what’s on your mind.