Can We Please Have an Adult Conversation About Money?

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You’ll have to forgive me if you think I’m oversimplifying. Let me lay out the money situation for the United States:

1)   The government spends a lot of money on a lot of things…every dollar backed by a spending priority articulated by the executive branch or the Congress.

2)   The federal government doesn’t collect enough money from its various revenue sources to pay for all the things government has decided to do.

3)    Paying debt service on the accumulated borrowed money is taking up a bigger share of the overall federal dollar each year.

4)   To borrow less, you must spend less or collect more. With me so far? Oh yes, and one more thing…

5)   If you decide not to cut heavily from defense, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, there aren’t many places left to save much money, certainly not the kind of money you’d have to save to close the massive deficits planned for the coming years.

As I sit in Washington and watch the solemn declarations, political positioning, and imaginary debt reductions suggested in one plan or another, I wish I could make everybody involved in the process talk about the same thing, at the same time. Right now they talk past each other to various constituents and interests, and hide the ball… the various inconvenient truths about one proposal or another.

          For example: the plan proposed by the Chairman of the House Budget Committee Paul Ryan (R-WI), expands the federal deficit for years to come. The Ryan plan was approved nearly unanimously by Republican House members, many of whom are stoutly declaring they aren’t sure they want to vote to raise the federal debt ceiling. To make the Ryan plan possible, the federal government must borrow more.

          The President’s plan will also involve borrowing trillions of dollars over the next several years. President Obama, like Rep. Ryan, says he wants to cut federal spending significantly in the coming years. His plan will also add trillions to the accumulated debt of the United States.

          On this week’s edition of Destination Casa Blanca my guests talked about federal spending, how to cut it, and what could not be cut. Our taped reports (you can watch some of them along with excerpts from our discussions) looked closely at the lives of low income Latinos living with some forms of federal support who were wondering how to get along without them.

          If reducing the size of the federal government is a national goal, does everyone, everyone, have to take a hit to get the books in balance? A lot of our national conversation has warily circled around the difficult and stubborn facts undergirding the budget mess. Republicans have overwhelmingly supported the Ryan Plan, which cuts taxes for high- earning Americans, makes significant cuts over time to programs for the poor, and gets the federal budget in balance only over a very long time.

          The Obama Plan allows the Bush-era tax cuts to lapse, refrains from further cuts in programs like food stamps (SNAP) and Medicare, and takes even longer than the Ryan Plan to get back to a balanced budget.

          We Americans are just lousy at talking about money…about class…about the very different lives lived by different groups of people. Some people who make more than 250 thousand dollars scoff at the idea that they’re wealthy, even through they are in the top few per cent of all Americans in income, and earn roughly five times the income of the median American family. What’s thinkable and doable in a family at that income level simply bears no resemblance to the limitations on a family earning 50 grand.

          The two families own very different houses, drive different cars, do different things for recreation, and send their kids to different schools. In some outward ways their lives may look similar, but look a little deeper and you’ll find a significant difference: Many of the middle class families achieve that outward affluence and material comfort by drowning in debt, while the families making many times more are paying for their houses, saving for retirement, and accumulating assets.

          Latinos are heavily concentrated among the working poor. They have a higher family income than black Americans not because they make more money, but because there tend to be more wage-earners in the average Latino household. They are more likely to be uninsured, more likely to be unemployed, more likely to have school- age children at home, and more likely to use public schools for their education.

          If you accept the proposition that the federal government should borrow less money, how do get there? Will taxes have to be raised? Some analysts have suggested that there’s no way to really make significant long-term cuts in deficit spending without raising taxes. One of our guests on the program endorsed the frequently cited GOP idea that raising taxes to their pre-Bush levels will punish success and discourage hiring and investment. However, the current levels of taxation haven’t done much to encourage them, either.

          Policymakers and analysts have been saying for weeks that a deal on the budget is going to require “hard choices” and “compromise.” Look at the state of our politics and tell me: Do you think the sides in this debate are even sharing the same budget planet? Can you really compromise with someone who doesn’t have a few differences with you, but sees the entire landscape in a fundamentally different way from the way you do?

          Soon, our national legislature will have to decide whether or not it will vote to raise the national debt ceiling. Shortly after, it will have to pass a budget for the next fiscal year.  Who is going to be asked to give up subsidies for the bare necessities of life, and who will be asked for inconvenience? In our country more power resides in the smaller number with the larger resources. Will that “minority” get to decide on behalf of all Americans how we’re going to fix the real distortions in the way our government collects and spends money? You tell me… add to the blog here at Destination Casa Blanca, watch excerpts of the program at www.hitn.tv/dcb and on YouTube. And watch our next edition on HITN, or stream it live from the website. See you soon.

The Coming War Over Social Security

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As the Congress and the White House try to come to terms on bringing what the federal government spends and what it collects closer to each other, listen for loose talk. There’s bound to be plenty of it on all sides of the debate.

          This year, the government of the United States will spend more than a trillion dollars more than it takes in from your taxes and other revenues. A trillion. It’s an amount that even during the huge deficits of the Ronald Reagan and George W Bush presidencies, would have been unthinkable.

          Republicans headed to a decisive takeover of the House and took back several seats in the Senate by selling voters on the idea that the government can’t continue on that path. The deficits have to be reduced, said voters. President Obama says he agrees. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says he agrees. House Speaker John Boehner says he agrees. And now the search is on for ways to spend less money.

          It is in this context that Social Security comes up again and again. After all, it’s pointed out, the program is already committed to paying out more benefit to today’s retirees than today’s workers are paying in. Eventually, all the money the system has loaned to the federal government will be exhausted, and the system will be “broke.” So Social Security, that line of reasoning goes, will only add to the deficits as Washington struggles to bring them down.

          Not exactly.

          For one thing, the FICA taxes paid by workers for the last 25 years reduced the annual deficits by more than $2 trillion. For another, can a program funded by all the working people of the United States really go “broke?” Wouldn’t more than a hundred million workers suddenly have to stop paying FICA in order for Social Security to “run out of money?”

          On this week’s Destination Casa Blanca we asked whether Social Security is a good deal for Latinos. There’s an honest debate to be had in the coming years over how the program works and whether big changes have to be made to keep it solvent and fair in the decades to come. As the workforce gets browner in the coming years, it’s a reasonable thing to ask whether Social Security taxes, and benefits all workers in the same way.

          The profile of the Latino population is a little different from the American population overall. As the country ages, Latinos are and will continue to be the youngest major population group. Latinos still earn less money than the average American worker. Latino workers, more than other Americans, tend to work in jobs less likely to provide an employer-sponsored defined-benefit pension plan, less likely to offer a 401k plan, and less likely to offer an employer contribution or match.

          Lower-paid workers, in general, tend to save less because they use more of current income paying for the necessities of daily life. The Latino elderly have saved little for retirement, and will depend more heavily than other Americans on Social Security as a sole support in later years.

          Hold on a minute, say critics of the program. If Latino workers owned their own accounts, rather than relying so heavily on Social Security, they would have a chance to play catch-up in later years to make up for less saving in younger years. More likely to live in extended families than other American elderly, retired Latinos who owned their own accounts would be able to pass on the accumulated value to their wider families even after they die. Right now, when a retired recipient dies, the payoff, after a lifetime of earnings, falls instantaneously to zero.

          One more thing: When you look at the age profiles of the American population as a whole, and the Latino population, you see very different things. We are in the midst of a huge transition from a white majority workforce to a white minority workforce. The enormous baby boom cohort is retiring… while huge groups of Latino teenagers and young adults are moving up to take its place. Throughout their working lives, today’s young Latinos will pay the benefits of a vast pool of white retirees. But when those young workers begin to retire and want to collect on the promises made while they were supporting the boomers in their old age, Social Security won’t be able to pay its full promised benefit any longer. In the 2040s there will only be two workers for every retiree, and only enough money paid into the system to cover about 80 cents of every dollar promised in benefits.

          Is that really a good deal for today’s Latino workers?

          The guests on the program wanted to reassure viewers that the program is a very good deal for Latinos, because it provides a guaranteed benefit, promises a benefit to those who haven’t managed to save very much, and provides disability and survivor’s insurance to worker’s who often have little access to either. Latinos are still having bigger families than other Americans, and are the Americans who most frequently work in jobs with very little in the way of employer benefits.

          Americans have been lousy savers in recent decades. That’s all Americans. Millions of Americans in their 50s have almost nothing saved for retirement. Add to that the loss of home equity… or homes, period… the battering of the stock market and 401k plans… the suspension of company contributions to worker saving plans… the evaporation of pension plans when companies went bankrupt… the list is daunting. Even families that thought they had done a good or fair job of getting ready are going to find themselves shockingly short of cash.

          The new debate over making fundamental change has Congressmembers sadly shaking their heads and calling it something we “have to do”  because of the “threat” of unfunded liabilities. That story line conveniently leaves out the fact that American workers have already loaned the federal government trillions of bucks. Listen carefully as Congress tries to grapple with a problem that is undoubtedly real, but may not be a crisis. The ladies and gentlemen who spent your money aren’t being entirely honest about where it went. Watch your wallet.

Uncle Sam’s Neighborhood? Or Uncle Sam’s Backyard?

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It wasn’t so long ago, the blink of an eye in historical terms, that some of the final chapters of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union were being played out in Latin America. The Soviets befriended and armed revolutionaries and young socialist leaders. At the same time the United States buttressed established regimes, undermined left-of-center governments, and kept an eye out for anti-Americanism.

Go back decades further, when the Soviet Union was not yet a factor in world affairs, United States asserted its government, military, and commercial interests from Tijuana, Mexico to Punta Arenas, Chile, and throughout the Caribbean. American troops chased Sandino through the mountains of Nicaragua, occupied Haiti, chased Pancho Villa around Northern Mexico and kept Central America safe for United Fruit. Granted, it was a different age. Marine General Smedley Butler famously recalled, “I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.”

I don’t tell you all this to exact blame or point fingers. I mention it all only to stress that the United States and Latin America have been eyeing each other warily for more than 150 years, perhaps since the Monroe Doctrine, when the President of the still-young United States warned the powers of Western Europe to stay out of the Americas. Uncle Sam has looked at the Hemisphere as his natural sphere of influence ever since.
This past week on Destination Casa Blanca we looked back on President Obama’s recent Latin American trip and assessed its themes and its reception in Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador. Why was each chosen? Did each represent something vital and essential about the overall reality of the Americas south of Mexico in 2011?

Veteran Brazilian analyst Paolo Sotero gave the American president high marks for substance and style in Brazil. The big changes in the Brazilian-American relationship was full recognition of changes in the Obama Administration’s outlook on the world, but also the profound changes in Brazil. South America’s giant has emerged from corruption and authoritarian regimes to become a stable democracy and economic powerhouse. Now, Sotero noted, Brazil was also taking gradual steps toward taking a role in the world consistent with its size and growing wealth.

Next stop Chile. Former Chilean education minister Sergio Bitar, now a visiting fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue, talked of the distance Chile and the United States have come since the days of American support for the overthrow of the Allende government. “He used the word ‘partnership’ 24 times in his speech,” Bitar noted. The country has come out of dictatorship and built a democracy. Chile is a different place, and the tone of Obama’s public statements there was meant to signal that the United States is also a different place (though President Obama could not leave domestic political considerations behind entirely, sidestepping demands that he apologize for the US involvement in the 1973 coup.

Domestic considerations moved front and center in the Obama visit to El Salvador, where the contentious debate over immigration became a subject for conversation with President Mauricio Funes. While Brazil sends jets and Chile copper and wine, El Salvador has sent hundreds of thousands of its sons and daughters to the big cities of North America. As Washington’s opinion of the government of the day in El Salvador has risen and fallen, the ease with which Salvadorans came north also waxed and waned. Immigrant communities in the United States are watching closely as the United States gingerly tries to work out the terms under which Central Americans enter and stay in the US.

As with Chile, the United States has a difficult Cold War history with El Salvador. During the 1980s, Jose Napoleon Duarte, a former coup leader, presented himself as a respectable face of government and one preferable to the right wing ARENA party of Roberto D’Aubuisson. While Duarte struggled to bring order to El Salvador, the FMLN, the Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation, was in the bush, fighting to overthrow the government and establish a communist government in San Salvador.

The FMLN’s strength caused a gradual shift in American strategy. Washington moved from seeking a military defeat of the guerrilla group to favoring a negotiated settlement of the civil war. Today Funes, a former TV journalist, is the first FMLN president of the republic, and the first leader of the party who did not fight in the civil war.

All our panelistas, who also included Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America, and Eric Farnsworth of the Council of the Americas, endorsed the visit’s itinerary and themes, and regretted the way the trip was drowned out by developments in North Africa and Japan. They appreciated the strong statements from the young American president indicating that the United States would be playing a different role in the Americas from that of the past.

Though Barack Obama didn’t apologize to the Chileans, he did visit the tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the Catholic cleric assassinated as he became an outspoken advocate for the poor of El Salvador. A right wing death squad killed the bishop at mass, even as the United States backed right wing parties, Thale noted, making the visit to the tomb an important symbol of a new chapter in ties between Central America and the United States.

American adventurers like William Walker, who sought to become an emperor in 19th century Central America and died in front of a Honduran firing squad, the American banana kings of the 20th century, and the home-grown puppet regimes of the second half are part of a less-than-rosy history of US involvement in the hemisphere. Today, countries like Peru can look to China and Brazil to sell its wares, not just the US, and are thriving in the new multi-polar world. Increasing economic security, and democratic stability have changed the countries of the hemisphere. And no longer being the only game in town forces 21st century America to be a different place as well. How does it look to you? Let us know, at the Destination Casa Blanca website, hitn.tv/dcb and every week at the Huffington Post. We’d love to hear from you.

The Federal Budget Priorities

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It’s one of the most important jobs of the Congress and the President: come up with a plan for financing the operations of government. The Administration and the Hill have to figure out how to raise the money–who to tax and how much—then spend it.

One of the most persistent and irritating parts of the modern debate over taxation and spending is the feigned surprise and sputtering anger over the tax code and the federal budget. How… our political class asks, did things ever get that way? How did we end up spending so much money, on so many things, for so long? How did the tax code ever come to stretch for thousands of pages of tiny type? How did paying the interest on the federal debt ever become one of the single largest expenses of the national government?
Well, dear elected officials, you did it. Every line of the tax code. Every item in the federal budget. The appropriations that pay the salary of every one of those thousands of “federal bureaucrats” you speak of with such disdain was passed by the Congress and signed by the President.

Yet here we are, 9 months into the fiscal year, still arguing over a spending plan for 2010-11, and heading into another mud wrestling match over how to raise it and spend it for 2011-12.

We spent an installment of Destination Casa Blanca chewing over the federal budget, federal priorities, and how the zeal to cut spending was going to effect millions of Latinos.

Though members of Congress from both parties exclaim that sure, everything’s on the table including defense spending. Don’t be surprised if the Department of Defense does take a few hits, but the preponderance of cuts come elsewhere. Republican plans for the coming decade feature more than 6 trillion dollars in cuts, including massive restructuring of Medicaid, the health care plan for low-income Americans. The state-federal partnership that pays for treatment is burdening states already reeling from declining revenues and exploding obligations.

This week’s panel bemoaned the threatened cuts, questioned the necessity for them, and promised bad outcomes for low-income and minority citizens. The idea that spending couldn’t be sustained at current levels found little acceptance with the panel. Working class people, they maintained, were going to suffer more than the wealthy, as they already do.

The panel may be right. They may also be pushing back on a strong public sentiment that government is too big, collects too much money, and tries to do too many things only to do them badly. That public sentiment may reflect the truly perilous state of government finances at all levels, city, county, state and federal. What it doesn’t take into account however, is the reality that hundreds of thousands of jobs may hinge on continued high level of public spending. At a time when there are five job-seekers for every job the notion that these newly unemployed will simply shift to the private sector is hard to imagine.

Latinos are making less money than other Americans. Their family income is buttressed by having more adults in the household working, and working more hours. They depend heavily on public services… schools, transportation, housing, social services, and help like small business loans. Republicans wondering how they might do better with the growing Latino vote in future election cycles might keep this in mind as they consider the consequences of proposing massive cuts in public spending. Social conservatives dream of Latinos as Future Republicans, without dealing with their continued reliance on government support.

Governments can’t spend money they don’t have forever. That’s true. It’s also true that the most vulnerable Americans have few others options to replace the help they get from public sources. Tough choices are going to be made in the very near future. I hope we won’t continue to pretend that the tax code and the federal budget are not creations of the United States Congress, so that today’s members can fume and posture and pretend that somebody else made it all this way.

The Democrats are hoping to avoid deep cuts in social services until the economy has moved further toward recovery. They may not get that choice… and the budget battles of 2011 may set the table for the 2012 election season in ways both big parties can’t control.

Obesity in America… A growing epidemic

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If we consulted the health statistics kept by the rich countries club, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, the OECD, we might not be too surprised to find that the United States has the highest rate of obesity, at 30.6%. What country, would you guess, is number two? Mexico…with an adult obesity rate of 23%.

That’s a new development on a couple of levels. It’s a sign of Mexico’s economic progress that the country is a member of the OECD. It is perhaps a symptom of that newfound wealth that Mexicans are digging their graves with their knives and forks almost as fast as their NAFTA neighbors next door. The old verities about American obesity and immigrant health—that newcomers arrived slim and became fat after taking on the American way of eating—are falling by the wayside as obesity rates creep higher in “sending” countries.

My program on HITN TV, Destination Casa Blanca, took a look at obesity and Latinos in the United States. A stunning number of Latinos in the United States, from the Caribbean, Central America, and South America are obese or overweight, and their US-born children are growing up with weight problems. On the first anniversary of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program, we asked, are the numbers moving in the right direction?

The short answer is… sorta. The rate of increase in weight problems has slowed. Schools are taking gradual steps toward improving the meals they serve, and including more physical education in the required curriculum. But the trends that push on weight problems have not changed: increasingly sedentary youth, the easy availability of highly caloric food, less walking and biking to school.

Pick up the paper, and you’ll see all kinds of solutions. Student market gardens have sprung up around the country. Cooking classes for kids seek to teach new food habits and deliver basic information on nutrition and healthy eating. However those programs are still pilots and experiments in most places, small-scale and low-impact in too many places. Away from the bib lettuce and kale is the real world of school systems struggling to keep unit costs for feeding students low, chicken tenders and french fries, pizzas and soda.

Destination Casa Blanca guest Maria Gomez, executive director of a large social service agency in Washington DC, pointed out the association of a little more weight with success and affluence was one barrier to slimming down. Grandparents are happy to see fat babies. People new to the country who may have been food insecure back home, suddenly find they have access to more meat, more cheese, more cooking oil… more of everything more of the time.

Sin taxing soft drinks is smothered in the cradle every time it’s suggested. Watch closely as a long list of industry-sponsored organizations channel consumer anger at any attempts to create disincentives to drinking highly sweetened drinks. Notice also, the outraged housewife loading groceries on the checkout counter is never obese in the anti-tax commercials. Neither are her kids.

In China, 20 million people died from famine from 1959 to 1961. The number of obese Chinese grows 30 to 50% every year. Granted, that growth rate is based on a very small base. The vast majority of the country’s people are still what an American would call “thin.” But the lifestyle changes rocking China promise that rate of increase will continue, until the base isn’t so small any more.

Americans are already where the rest of the world is heading. It will be interesting to see if this country can start to solve the problem as the rest of the world realizes a sizable majority has a weight problem. At a time when the US is wrestling with how to cover tens of millions currently uninsured and underinsured, the coming Latino weight boom is particular challenge. Latinos in the United States face rapidly growing obesity AND come from the demographic group with the lowest rates of health insurance.

The growing waistlines, and the growing Latino presence, will offer special challenges to an overburdened health system, as they loom larger in high-cost age cohorts. Today the largest single age group among Latinos is 0-5 years of age. A few decades down the road waits the graying of the brown… and high rates of diabetes, hypertension, and other obesity-related conditions will drive the whole nation’s health care bill. Saving a few pounds now will save a lot more dollars later.

In the countries with fast-growing economies in Latin America, Asia, and Eastern Europe, millions are following Americans into massive waistlines and big threats to national health. One peculiar wrinkle sees food companies providing more and more fattening food, in more places, during more hours of the day, while the governments of these same countries run public service announcements over radio and television urging people to eat less and exercise. The public’s in the middle and, for the moment, hearing the food company’s flashy advertising more clearly than it hears the bitter pill of exercise and healthy eating. Look out world… obesity is going to become one of the most frightening health crises of the 21st century.

A Long Road to Recovery

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Secretaries of Labor are often unstoppable cheerleaders for the job market, seeing blue skies ahead. Former US Representative, now cabinet secretary Hilda Solis has learned from two years on the job during tough economic times: No blue sky forecasts unless they are absolutely guaranteed. Here’s what she sounds like now: “I don’t think that right now the Federal Government or the Congress is in a position to say that we’re somehow going to address all that. We’re all going to have to come to the table, make some hard decisions, and tighten our belt.”

Who can blame her? When the stimulus money for state and local governments ran out, public workers started to get laid off. Corporations are sitting on one of the largest mountains of cash in history. Earnings are strong, but not encouraging new hires. On this week’s edition of Destination Casa Blanca, wide-eyed optimism was in very short supply.

We spent most of the program talking about banks, lenders, and Latinos. The numbers are not encouraging: Latino unemployment is significantly higher than the national rate. Home losses have long since moved from being driven by people with second-rate subprime mortgages to being driven by families with plummeting incomes.

Enter the Government of the United States. First the Bush Administration, then the newly-arrived Obama Administration rolled out programs designed to keep people in their homes. They’ve been slow, and didn’t do much to slow the onslaught of foreclosures. When the repeated efforts didn’t accomplish much, it was always back to the drawing board to avoid the mistakes of this program in the next one.

But work outs, short sales, new amortization schedules and all that stuff was never going to address the fundamental problems of the housing market. In any marketplace, involving any buyers and sellers, and any commodity, cheaper money and new buyers is going to mean rising prices. In America we had home prices that were growing faster than the number of households, faster than incomes, faster than was ever justified by changes in the housing stock. The last entrants to a marketplace often pay more for their house, and have a smaller chance of making much money when they sell it.

Oh, but those housing prices, jumping year after year, convinced millions that if they didn’t jump on the train it was going to leave the station without them. Those new owners included many people who couldn’t really afford to buy their house, people who just barely squeezed through the front door with the deed in their hands.

The just barely qualified fell into several camps. Some were one bad month away from missing home payments, or one major mechanical failure…home heating, hot water, away from losing it all. Others had “liar loans,” made after verbal assurances of sufficient income and savings, often when both sides of the transaction—lender and borrower—were in on the lie. Still others would have qualified for a conventional loan but got snookered by unscrupulous mortgage brokers who loaded them up with fees and mortgage rate booby traps.

Too many Latino buyers got the worst of all these worlds. They were late entrants to the market, after much of the appreciation had already happened. They were disproportionately first time buyers, so they couldn’t sell high somewhere else to capture the funds to buy in an inflated market. Underbanked, living in neighborhoods abandoned by the conventional banking industry, they were prey for the worst bottom-feeders in the financial services industry.

Latinos were also terribly exposed on the other end of the market…providing a lot of the labor that was overbuilding housing in marketplaces across the Sun Belt, feeding a marketplace fueled by cheap money. When the game was up, their unemployment rate climbed faster and farther than that of other Americans.

Now what?

From everything we’ve been told on Destination Casa Blanca, it’s going to take a long time to whittle down the mountain of unsold homes. Hundreds of thousands of families who were cheated by mortgage brokers are going to stay cheated, lose their homes, and start all over again. Millions of jobs gone after the recession are going to stay gone, and millions of people who go back to work are going to do it for reduced wages.

During the 90s, black and Latino workers were the last to benefit from tightening labor markets, last hired, and last given raises. The good times that stretched for so many from the mid-90s to the later years of this century’s first decade was muffled for minority families. Yes, they benefited, just not as much. Then, when the gains of the long boom evaporated, many were left with less than they had before.

It’s going to be a long trip back. For the country as a whole, but especially for those Americans who have shared so little in the country’s bounty for so long, and still have a strongly optimistic view of the American Dream and their place in it. Their touching faith in the future is smashed at our own risk.

Census results / redistricting

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Just as the US Constitution required, and Congress paid for, the Bureau of the Census headed out into the country to do the hard and seemingly impossible work of counting everyone living in the country during 2010. That elusive number is a constantly moving target: People move in. They move out. They die, and start lives as newborn citizens in the great American enterprise.

The work of the Census Bureau keeps scholars, reporters, and economists in work for years. Before too long, it’s time to start another count. Raul Cisneros of the Bureau said on this week’s Destination Casa Blanca that work was already under way for 2020, even as the brand spanking new numbers make their way out to the public.

During this week’s program we talked about the remarkable number of self-identified Latinos, some 45 million, and speculated about what it means right at this moment, and what it’s going to mean for America going forward.

A representative of the Bureau, Raul Cisneros, said the response to the mailed survey was good, and the new ways the Census asked about race and ethnicity was still being tabulated. Work on the 2020 Census, Cisneros said, has already begun. The bureau is a creature of the executive branch, with oversight from the Congress, which holds its purse strings. At the last minute, Congressional Republicans tried to add lines of inquiry regarding citizenship and legal status in the country, but those efforts were defeated by the insistence, in the plain language of the US Constitution that every person is to be counted. Period. And that, Cisneros said, is what the bureau tried to do, and believes it succeeded in doing.

However, the attempts to fiddle with the census exposed some of the fault lines in the national debate over what to do about the millions of people who have come to live in the country without following the laws governing immigration. Should they be counted? One of the most consequential tasks for which the census data is a tool is doling out congressional seats to the states. Does it make sense to count people who aren’t even supposed to be here for the purpose of apportionment? At this tense moment in the life of the nation, with soaring foreclosures and persistently high unemployment, the act of counting everyone within our borders ends up implicating other national debates that involve wealth and poverty, race, class, and nationality.

This year’s census data was used to determine that Texas will have four more members of the House of Representatives in the next congress. Most of that additional population was added to Texas’ total by the tremendous growth in Latino numbers. Illinois is losing a seat, as is New York. In both cases the losses would have been much more substantial if not for the large and growing number of Latinos. California held on to its seats for largely the same reason—budget problems, economic distress, challenges to the Golden State’s quality of life has seen non-Hispanic whites moving to next-door Arizona, Oregon on the northern border and nearby Washington.

Here’s where it gets tricky: In the recent mid-term elections, Texans sent a huge delegation of Republicans to Washington, and gave the GOP bullet-proof majorities in both chambers of the state legislature. Oh yeah, and the legislature oversees the remapping not only of its own seats, but US House seats as well. How many of those new Texas seats will be drawn in ways that give large areas of Latino settlement a chance to elect a representative of their choice to Congress? Texas still must watch out for the provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act; it would be asking for legal challenges if none of the four new seats were composed in a way that would give Latino politicians a shot. But even in Texas, a majority of Latinos give their votes to Democrats. But oh yeah… the legislature is even more Republican than it used to be. What’s your best guess? Two seats? Three seats? None?

When I was covering a redistricting battle in Chicago one influential alderman, a white guy with a huge army of Puerto Rican ward workers, said he was ready to stop all the games around redistricting, create 50 city council seats for Chicago’s roughly three million people, and simply press a grid down on the map of the city to form more or less equal districts of some 60 thousand people. No reaching out a finger of land to “capture” a white, or black, or Latin neighborhood. Just, as he said, “let the chips fall where they may.”

Part of the underlying assumption in the Voting Rights Act and in modern map-making is that white voters simply won’t elect black and brown candidates even of their own party. The examples are legion… but the counter-examples are growing in number as well: Puerto Rico-born Raul Labrador now holds a US House seat from Idaho. Black Iraq War veteran Allen West now holds a South Florida house seat. West was sent to Washington from a district with a relatively small number of black residents. Both Labrador and West are Republicans.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois is now a congressional veteran after a new Latino-friendly seat was carved out of two huge barrios, a largely Puerto Rican neighborhood on the North Side, and a largely Mexican one on the South Side. In between sits one of the largest groupings of black neighborhoods in America, the West Side, which starts just outside the famed Loop and runs to the city line. In order to make that seat, Illinois 4, mapmakers used the roadbed of an expressway, public parks, and other uninhabited pieces of land to stitch north and south together, since the law requires districts be “contiguous.”

Is Luis Gutierrez a Puerto Rican congressman? Sure… proudly, unapologetically so. Does he need a district created so he can win, and does a district have to have an overwhelming majority of Latino voters in order to remain a “safe” seat for him? Here’s where it gets more complicated. Gutierrez has now been a member of congress for 18 years. He’s one of the recognized experts on immigration law on the Hill. But he’s also someone with deep expertise on housing and banking, issues that must surely resonate beyond the Mexican and Puerto Rican neighborhoods that make up a lot of his district. Will only black Floridians vote for Rep. Alcee Hastings? Will only Latino Brooklynites vote for Rep. Nydia Velasquez? Can the strictures of the Voting Rights Act be safely loosened? I welcome your comments at the Destination Casa Blanca website, www.hitn.tv/dcb and at the Huffington Post. See you next week.

Immigration

immigration

Here we go again… or do we?

You can bet interested parties on all sides of the immigration debate held their breath during the final weeks of the lame duck session of the 111th Congress. When the clock, the year, and the congress all ran out, so did what the Conventional Wisdom considered President Obama’s best shot at immigration reform.

But the conversation is not over by a long shot. People who are agitating for comprehensive immigration reform aren’t going to drop it just because health care reform took up the first half of the Obama Administration. People who passionately desire mass deportations, workplace raids, and repeal of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution (or at least say they do) realize they’ve got a hot issue that rallies the troops, and sends the base into spasm.

All the tribes were surprised when the President brought up the continuing need for comprehensive reform. Do the business interests, farm interests, liberals, Latinos, and other advocates of cutting a deal believe President Obama is willing to spend large amounts of political capital on this? During a period of severe economic distress, and high unemployment, and deep political division over immigration, it’s not all together clear this is a fight the President wants to pick. On the other hand, it may be a fight he can’t afford to avoid.

During the midterm elections, as independents and Democratic-leaning white voters abandoned the President’s party in droves, Latinos gave Democrats two out of three of their votes, even more in critical races like the one that saw Sen. Harry Reid hold onto his seat in Nevada, and Jerry Brown take the governor’s race in California from the formidably well-funded political neophyte Meg Whitman.

It’s complicated.
For one thing, many people who hate the idea of a road to citizenship for millions of undocumented workers believe… or say they believe… legally-resident and native-born Latinos have no sympathy for those in the country illegally. They cite polls and statistics and studies that say it’s soft-headed to believe legal residents facing high unemployment and downward pressure on their wages want to throw the door wide open to newcomers.

Legalization supporters are lucky to have the enemies they do: While soaking in the good news from public opinion researchers, Republicans have appeared dead set on squandering their advantages and the tilt in the playing field by alienating America’s fastest-growing minority group one brown voter at a time. Commercials portraying Mexicans as an invading menace ran in districts from the border to the Southeast. Politicians in state houses around the nation scrambled to win the near term and lose the long term by talking about immigrants as a threat to the United States. While doing that, they imagined that millions of people whose parents and grandparents were those immigrants won’t be offended, and will understand that anti-immigrant politicians aren’t talking about them.

Yet, the pressures building up inside the problem aren’t going to go away. When Republicans like Arizona Senator John McCain and South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham withdrew their support for comprehensive reform and began stressing “border security first,” the Obama Administration took them at their word. Interdictions at the border are up, deportations are up, workplace raids are up, and the lousy job market has sent a million illegal immigrants home. Barack Obama gave his opponents their border security first, and has very little to show for it, since those same politicians simply continue to talk as if nothing at all has happened.

The symbolic argument is strong and holds tremendous appeal for millions of Americans. It goes something like, “What part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?” People who did not follow the law, gain proper documents, and enter the American job market with the permission of the immigration authorities, goes the argument, should get no consideration at all from the system. Those people are right. The eleven million or so illegal residents in the country have no legal claim to long term legal residence in the United States.

But hold on a minute… the other side quickly pipes in, “What part of collapsing industries don’t you understand?” Immigrant labor is the pillar upon which many industries leans. Immigrant labor creates profits that spin out into real estate markets, department stores, auto dealerships, and keep the country’s food the cheapest in the developed world. In the near term, it’s interesting to speculate on whether sending the 11 million home would reduce the unemployment rate among native-born citizens, or explode it. The effects would no longer be confined to the Northeast, Border Southwest and the West Coast. Wait until you see the Census figures from all kinds of places that never thought of themselves as Latino kind of places.

And as the two sides natter back and forth, trading shots over illegal immigration, we are careening toward a new presidential election citizen. Courage on both sides of the aisle would logically be in short supply. Risk-averse politics are the flavor of the age. It will be interesting to see whether John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and Barack Obama can have an honest heart-to-heart about what’s at stake for their country, even as they wrestle over the power and political high ground in the run-up to 2012.

Cuba

cuba

There’s something about the subject of Cuba that just riles people up. So it was with anticipation and no little anxiety that I strapped myself into the anchor chair at Destination Casa Blanca to moderate a conversation on Cuba. Looking back on it, the conversation was more civil than many, and still more contentious than most.
The problem boils down to a few simple observations about the state of play in America’s Last Front in the Cold War:

1) The people who want to keep the pressure on Raul and Fidel Castro and Cuba’s Communist Party point out that the island nation deprives its people of political freedoms, holds political prisoners, punishes dissent and can’t deliver economically for its people.
2) The people who want to end the embargo point out that almost 50 years after the Kennedy Administration imposed a near-total embargo on Cuba, little has changed there politically demonstrating the ineffectiveness of the policy.

The two sides have been talking past each other for decades. That much has not changed. Two recent events have only sharpened the disagreement, and in a way perfectly in keeping with this 50-year old shouting match, guarantee it will continue for now: The Obama Administration has opened US airports to flights to and from Cuba, removed many of the restrictions on cash remittances to Cuban citizens, and made it easier for church, educational, and cultural visits. While all this was happening, Cuban-born and staunchly anti-Communist Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida has become the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the committee of responsibility for Cuba policy.

In many ways the embargo, what the Cubans call “El Bloqueo,” “the Blockade,” is increasingly honored in the breach. It is a serious piece of economic pressure, make no mistake. But over the years it’s been modified, loosened, and amended to the point where the United States is one of the top exporters to the island, the number one supplier of food, and the number two supplier of visitors (mostly Cuban-born US residents, and Cuban-Americans with relatives on the island, but increasingly US citizens with no family connections).

Embargo opponents say the embargo and the Helms-Burton laws that restrict commerce between third party countries and Cuba have made the island poor and placed pressures on the Cuban economy no American government placed on other Communist governments. Embargo supporters reply that Cuba is free, and has been free to trade with all the other countries of the world, and the economy stinks anyway. The US embargo, its supporters say, is only an excuse for the lousy performance of the Cuban economy.

Here’s where it gets complicated… where the cascading “yeah, but” moments begin…
Yeah, but… not being able to trade with a historic trading partner and leading world economy just 90 miles away is not fully compensated by being able to trade with countries thousands of miles away…

Yeah, but… for decades the Eastern Bloc traded with Cuba on preferential terms, in much the same way the Chavez government in Venezuela does today, and Cuba is still not able to deliver a higher standard of living for its people…

Yeah, but… even though exceptions have been made for medicines, many patented medicines and medical equipment from the United States either can’t be purchased, or can only be purchased on the world market at a steep mark-up…And the US government prosecutes and fines entities who run afoul of the laws…

Yeah, but…the celebrated Cuban medical system can’t even provide widely available medicines to its hospital patients, and makes families bring their own sheets, and even their own food, to supply family members during treatment.

And on it goes. World without end, amen.
I have recently been to Cuba. I travel a great deal in the developing world (as a matter of fact, this dispatch is being written in a hotel room in Guatemala City). I can tell you first hand that Cuba is neither the paradise that some starry-eyed Westerners tell about after a visit, or the hellhole its detractors—heavily concentrated in Washington and Miami-Dade—would have you believe.

Cuba is a developing country. It has many similarities to other developing countries around the world. In some ways it provides for its people’s daily needs in a way superior to countries of equally low ($4400 per year) per capita GDP. In terms of personal freedoms, it falls well short of many similarly struggling places around the world. The vast gulfs between rich and poor that exist in many other developing nations don’t exist here, in part, because not many people are able to be rich, and in part because Cuba blunts some of the worst effects of being poor easily seen in other places in the world.

One significant way in which Cuba differs from the Dominican Republic, or Peru, or Ecuador is its generations-long animus toward the United States, and Washington’s habit of roaring its distaste right back.

We fought a long, nasty, and ruinous war with Vietnam. Today you can find Vietnamese products on the shelves in American malls, and a Vietnamese ambassador in Washington. Today China’s Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo sits in jail, while container ships groaning with the weight of Chinese exports head toward American ports. During the entire Cold War the United States had diplomatic and trade ties with the Soviet Union and Soviet satellite states.

Our elected leaders–from both parties—decided a long time ago that Cuba was, and will remain different as long as the Castro brothers are in power. In many ways the argument is as simple as its ever been… depending on your point of view, American policy toward Cuba has not worked, or has not worked yet.

You can see those polar opposites at work in excerpts of this week’s Destination Casa Blanca, two Cuban-born debaters, Frank Calzon and Amaury Cruz, and two representatives of conservative think tanks, Ray Walser of Heritage and Dan Griswold of Cato, take diametrically opposed views of American policy and how it must change. I urge you to take a look, at Destination Casa Blanca

And visit this space, and the HITN website next week, for a look at how Latino political interests might fare under the 112th Congress.

112th Congress: Whaddya Expect?

112th-congress-whaddya-expect

In last November’s election, Latinos gave two out of three votes to Democratic candidates. At the same time, other Americans gave the Democrats a stinging defeat. The House shifted from a secure Democratic majority to a big Republican one. Democrats held the US Senate… barely. State governments shifted heavily in Republicans favor, in state legislatures and governors’ offices.

So, if the question is, “What should Latinos expect from the new Congress?,” the answer is, “Not much.” By the lights of many of our guests on this week’s Destination Casa Blanca, that’s exactly the way it should be. Not to punish a voting group that withheld its support, mind you, but because a tapped out federal government just can’t afford to do all the things it has been over the past several years.

What began as, what was intended to be a discussion built around political analysis of the new powers in the House turned into an interesting philosophical conversation about government, taxation, and expectations.

Currently, the federal government is spending vast sums in excess of what it collects in taxes, fees, trade duties, and mineral royalties. It pays interest on the decades of already borrowed money. It pays to fight wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It pays to promote American exports overseas. It pays to patrol the 1400-mile border with Mexico. It supports local school systems from coast to coast, gives poor families the cash to buy food, and recently stopped General Motors from sliding headlong into bankruptcy.

One of our guests, Tom Bowden of the Ayn Rand Institute, wanted a small federal government, but didn’t believe the newly empowered Republican caucuses on Capitol Hill were going to give him one. Israel Ortega of the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation stressed his organization’s support for low taxes, lower government spending, and fewer federal duties. Bowden and Ortega agreed that emphasizing local management and local innovation would improve education more effectively than federal government oversight.

But Neera Tande of the Center for American Progress answered that government exists in part to accomplish things for people who need help. Whether it’s getting medical care to someone with no money, or making sure that local schools lift the life chances of children from poor families, governments make life better throughout a society, Tande insisted. People who support effective government stress that they are not in love with government for its own sake. If compassion doesn’t motivate citizens to support education, medical care, or other government-supported programs, maybe utility will.

Bad government services percolate throughout the society. Poorly educated workers pay less taxes. They’ll contribute less to your social security check. They will own less expensive houses, and support local public schools at a lower level, and risk repeating the cycle of low educational attainment and low adult income and life expectancy.

Our conservative panelists envision a much different country. It’s a place where wealth creators keep more of the wealth they make, and share less of it with governments at all levels. But this is not a problem, they reason, because a society with a smaller government is one where taxation does not discourage achievement, and regulation doesn’t tamp down production.