Cry About the Real Wolf l Real Danger in the Sequester l Charles Blow

OP-ED COLUMNIST

Cry About the Real Wolf

By CHARLES M. BLOW

 

The White House horribly botched its messaging on the sequester.

Damon Winter/The New York Times

Charles M. Blow

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The Obama administration desperately wanted to define the sequester’s immediate job casualties and calamitous disruptions.

In a way, Obama’s strategy was understandable, and may well have worked on a different group of Republicans from the present crop, which is constitutionally opposed to anything that this president supports.

It’s like one of those Warner Brothers cartoons where Bugs Bunny argues with Yosemite Sam and then takes Sam’s position only to have Sam continue to disagree out of spite and anger and ignorance. In our version, Sam then threatens to blow the economy to smithereens. It would be funny it weren’t so tragically real.

The White House wanted to cause enough outcry that it would pressure Republicans into a deal that would avert indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts.

But the outcry never came. Republicans gambled that it never would. They called the White House’s bluff.

The public had grown numb with the sky-is-falling hysterics in Washington, so much so that few were paying close attention to the sequester. A CBS News poll issued this week found that only 28 percent of Americans said that they were paying very close attention.

Many Republicans played down the sequester’s potential fallout, while fact checkers castigated the White House for exaggerating it.

This seems to have won some converts among the tangentially engaged electorate.

Sure, most people preferred some balance of spending cuts and tax increases, and a plurality blamed Republicans in Congress for not coming up with a deal, according the CBS News poll. But the percentage of people who said that the sequester would either be good for the country or wouldn’t have a real impact was equal to the percentage of people who believed that it would be bad for the country.

And, since the country didn’t fall apart during the first week of the sequester, many Americans may be even more open to the argument that the administration was crying wolf. In fact, the Dow Jones industrial average hit a record high this week, and there were no long lines at airports for any reason other than a brewing snowstorm.

But remember that in the story of the boy who cried wolf, ultimately, a real wolf does show up after all the false cries, and that very real wolf destroys a vulnerable flock.

The lesson, as applied to our present dilemma, is that alarmism erodes credibility, but real danger can still lurk.

The pain of the sequester is that kind that lurks: a slow, creeping disaster mainly affecting those Americans on the fringes who are barely inching their way back into a still-bleak job market — or hopelessly locked out of it — and poor Americans too old or too young to participate in it.

That is how the effects should always have been framed: not as a danger to air travelers and contractors, but as a prowling danger to the most vulnerable in our flock.

Not framing it this way harkens back to a larger problem in our culture: a failure, or outright unwillingness, to acknowledge America’s poor — both working and not — and to appreciate their struggle.

When I think about the effects of the sequester, I can’t help thinking about the people in my hometown in rural north Louisiana and in places like it.

In my hometown, the median family income is less than $30,000, and poverty rates are staggeringly high, according to the American Community Survey. This isn’t necessarily because people don’t take work if they can find it, but because much of the work they can find doesn’t pay a living wage.

So they supplement their salaries with the public benefits they’re eligible to receive.

The town is also home to the Head Start program for the area, and some of the only professional jobs available are at the school.

It is in places like this, places full of the working poor who don’t take airplanes or own stock, that the effects of the sequester will be all too real.

The director of the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the sequester could cost 750,000 jobs this year. Those are not likely to be lost from the top down but from the bottom up. And the estimate of job losses isn’t simply a factor of government pink slips, but the blow to the private sector when billions of dollars are withdrawn from the larger economy.

Pundits and politicians have mocked the cuts for being small in the grand scheme of an enormous national budget, but those are the callous waggings of tongues that have never given voice to the fear of poverty or tasted the bitterness of hunger.

For the rest, the less fortunate, those trying their best to feed their families and praying that illness passes over their houses, these cuts will be no joke.

Those are the people the White House and Congressional Democrats should highlight: good people dealt a poor hand and trying to make good of it.

There is another America, unseen and uncelebrated, where the wolf is ever sniffing at folks’ heels.

Poison Pill Politics l Charles Blow NYT

OP-ED COLUMNIST

Poison Pill Politics

The deadline has passed. The sequester is in effect. And Congress is not in session.

By CHARLES M. BLOW
Published: March 1, 2013

Damon Winter/The New York Times

Charles M. Blow

We now know that our political system is broken beyond anything even remotely resembling a functional government.

The ridiculous bill was designed as a poison pill, but Republicans popped it like a Pez. Now the body politic — weak with battle fatigue, jerked from crisis to crisis and struggling to recover from a recession — has to wait to see how severe the damage will be.

(The director of the Congressional Budget Office estimatesthat the sequester could cost 750,000 jobs in 2013 alone.)

This is all because Republicans have refused to even consider new revenue as part of a deal. That includes revenue from closing tax loopholes, a move they supposedly support.

As Speaker John Boehner said after his Congressional leaders met with President Obama on Friday:

“Let’s make it clear that the president got his tax hikes on Jan. 1. This discussion about revenue, in my view, is over.”

Boehner’s intransigence during the talks drew “cheers,” according to a report in The New York Times, from his chronically intransigent colleagues. But their position is a twist of the truth that is coming dangerously close to becoming accepted wisdom by sheer volume of repetition. It must be battled back every time it is uttered.

Let’s make this clear: it is wrong to characterize the American Taxpayer Relief Act as a “tax hike.” In reality, much of what it did was allow 18 percent of the Bush tax cuts — mostly those affecting the wealthiest Americans — to expire while permanently locking in a whopping 82 percent of them.

But of course, that misrepresentation fit with the tired trope of Democrats as tax-and-spend liberals. It also completely ignores that it was Bush-era spending that dug the ditch we’re in.

Republicans have defined their position, regardless of how reckless: austerity or bust. However, as economists have warned, austerity generally precedes — and, in fact, can cause — bust. Just look at Europe.

But Republicans are so dizzy over the deficits and delighted to lick the boots of billionaires that they cannot — or will not — see it. They are still trying to sell cut-to-grow snake oil: cut spending and cut taxes, and the economy will grow because rich people will be happy, and when rich people are happy they hire poor people, and then everyone’s happy.

This is the vacuous talk of politicians trying to placate people with vacation homes, not a sensible solution for people trying to purchase, or simply retain, their first homes.

Now the president is trying to make the best of a bad situation and bring expectations in line with what is likely to happen.

When Gallup this week asked Americans to use one word to describe the sequester, negative words outnumbered good words four to one. The top three negative words or phrases were “bad,” “disaster” and “God help us.”

At a news conference after Friday’s meeting with Congressional leaders, the president tried to tamp down some of the most dire predictions about the sequester’s impact. He said:

“What’s important to understand is that not everyone will feel the pain of these cuts right away. The pain, though, will be real.”

The president knows well that if the sequester’s effects are so diffused that the public — whose attention span is as narrow as a cat’s hair — doesn’t connect them to their source, people might think the administration cried wolf.

That’s why he said, and will most likely continue to say for months, “So every time that we get a piece of economic news over the next month, next two months, next six months, as long as the sequester’s in place we’ll know that that economic news could have been better if Congress had not failed to act.”

He must yoke this pain to the people who invited it. It’s not as though most Americans don’t already think poorly of Republicans anyway.

Pew Research Center report released this week found that most Americans think the Republican Party, unlike the Democratic Party, is out of touch with the American people and too extreme. And most Americans did not see Republicans as open to change or looking out for the country’s future as much as Democrats.

The president said Friday that “there is a caucus of common sense up on Capitol Hill” that includes Congressional Republicans who “privately at least” were willing to close loopholes to prevent the sequester.

Those privately reasonable Republicans might want to be more public before their party goes over another cliff and takes the country with them.

I invite you to join me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter, or e-mail me atchblow@nytimes.com.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on March 2, 2013, on page A19 of the New York edition with the headline: Poison Pill Politics.
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Escaping Slavery l Charles Blow l NYT

OP-ED COLUMNIST

Escaping Slavery

By CHARLES M. BLOW

America has slavery on the brain these days.

Published: January 4, 2013

Damon Winter/The New York Times

Charles M. Blow    Go to Columnist Page »

The New York Times

There were the recent releases of the movies “Lincoln” (which I found enlightening and enjoyable) and “Django Unchained” (which I found a profound love story with an orgy of excesses and muddled moralities). I guess my preferences reflect my penchant for subtlety. Sometimes a little bit of an unsettling thing goes a long way, and a lot goes too far. Aside from its gratuitous goriness, “Django Unchained” reportedly used the N-word more than 100 times. “Lincoln” used it only a handful. I don’t know exactly where my threshold is, but I think it’s well shy of the century mark.

And there was this week the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, one of the most important documents in this country’s archives.

All of this has caused me to think deeply about the long shadow of slavery, the legacy of that most grievous enterprise and the ways in which that poison tree continues to bear fruit.

To be sure, America has moved light-years forward from the days of slavery. But the idea that progress toward racial harmony would or should be steady and continuous is fraying. And the pillars of the institution — the fundamental devaluation of dark skin and strained justifications for the unconscionable — have proved surprisingly resilient.

For instance, in October, The Arkansas Times reported that Jon Hubbard, a Republican state representative, wrote in a 2009 self-published book that “the institution of slavery that the black race has long believed to be an abomination upon its people may actually have been a blessing in disguise.” His misguided point was that for all the horrors of slavery, blacks were better off in America than in Africa.

This was a prevailing, wrongheaded, ethically empty justification for American slavery when it was legal.

Robert E. Lee wrote in 1856: “The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, physically, and socially. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their further instruction as a race, and will prepare them, I hope, for better things.”

And in a famous 1837 speech on the Senate floor, John C. Calhoun declared: “I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good — a positive good.”

Lee was later appointed commander in chief of the armies of the South, and Calhoun had been vice president and became secretary of state. But in November, Hubbard lost his seat; I guess that’s progress.

Still, the persistence of such a ridiculous argument does not sit well with me. And we should all be unsettled by the tendency of some people to romanticize and empathize with the Confederacy.

Pew Research Center poll released in April 2011 found that most Southern whites think it’s appropriate for modern-day politicians to praise Confederate leaders, the only demographic to believe that.

CNN poll also released that month found that nearly 4 in 10 white Southerners sympathize more with the Confederacy than with the Union.

What is perhaps more problematic is that negative attitudes about blacks are increasing. According to an October survey by The Associated Press: “In all, 51 percent of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48 percent in a similar 2008 survey. When measured by an implicit racial attitudes test, the number of Americans with anti-black sentiments jumped to 56 percent, up from 49 percent during the last presidential election.”

Not progress.

In fact, it feels as though slavery as an analogy has become subversively chic. Herman Cain, running as a Republican presidential candidate, built an entire campaign around this not-so-coded language, saying that he had left “the Democrat plantation,” calling blacks “brainwashed” and arguing, “I don’t believe racism in this country today holds anybody back in a big way.”

As the best-selling author Michelle Alexander pointed out in her sensational 2010 book “The New Jim Crow,” various factors, including the methodical mass incarceration of black men, has led to the disintegration of the black family, the disenfranchisement of millions of people, and a new and very real era of American oppression.

As Alexander confirmed to me Friday: “Today there are more African-American adults under correctional control — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.”

Definitely not progress.

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