Feb 2 primary endorsements

County Board President
The candidates on the ballot for tomorrow’s state primary are not a very inspiring bunch, but even if you don’t vote for anyone else, you absolutely must go and vote for Toni Preckwinkle for Cook County Board President. This is the position that Todd Stroger has been making a hilarious cesspool of corruption and incompetence ever since the machine foisted him on us - and the only thing new there is the incompetence. Stroger is running again, but the bigger threat is that Clerk of the County Circuit Court Dorothy Brown might win. She’s been in trouble lately for inviting her 2100 employees to “voluntarily” donate money to her in numerous ways, and if she wins we can expect a new round of corruption and nepotism. Preckwinkle, on the other hand, is fastidiously uncorrupt and strong enough to take on the County Board. She’s also the most progressive member of the City Council. She has the best handle on the issues: she’s the only candidate who wants to make permanent the independent body monitoring the County hospitals and her other main priority is to route nonviolent offenders away from County jails. This might be the one chance in our lifetime to end the machine stranglehold on County government. Don’t waste it!

Other candidates are disappointing, but the races are important. The Senate race is between banking heir Alexi Giannoulias and former Chicago Inspector General David Hoffman (Jacob Meister dropped out yesterday and Cheryle Jackson hasn’t run a serious campaign). I don’t want to vote for Hoffman because his policies aren’t very progressive, but I will because Giannoulias’s policies aren’t any better and because he probably can’t win the general election. Giannoulias’s ties to his failing family bank are going to wreck his candidacy - he’s exactly the kind of privileged, irresponsible person people can’t stand right now. Just as important, Giannoulias is one of those politicians who won’t take a stand that hasn’t been poll-tested. Hoffman’s policies aren’t great, but I can imagine him coming to the realization once he’s in the Senate that drastic changes are required and that he needs to be a leader for fundamental reform. It's not likely, but at least it's conceivable. I can’t imagine any such thing from Giannoulias.

For governor we have Pat Quinn or Dan Hynes. Quinn has been a big disappointment - he’s mishandled a number of important policies and just doesn’t seem very good at politics. But I’m still going to vote for him because, unlike Hynes, he’s been honest with us about the need to raise taxes to fund the catastrophic budget - already crippling the provision of vital social services across the state - which is now set to fall 1/5 short of funds next year. The real problem with state government is House Speaker Michael Madigan, who blocked a sensible, progressive tax increase last year and has refused to offer any other solution. If Hynes wins, leaving Quinn a lame duck for the next nine months, there’s no way the budget will get fixed. Quinn has good values, we can only hope he’ll figure out how to be a good politician too.

Lieutenant Governor
Arthur Turner is part of the state House leadership, which means he’s connected to Madigan, which speaks poorly of him. But he also has an independent progressive base in the West Side and having a Madigan ally facilitating communication between the governor and House speaker might actually help prevent a repeat of last year’s embarrassing legislative session.

The job of comptroller is mostly technical in nature, its real importance is giving a politician a statewide platform from which to run for higher office. David Miller seems to be the most progressive of the candidates, he’s connected to Jesse Jackson, Jr and was endorsed by the Progressive Action Project and SEIU.

Same goes for treasurer. I can’t tell if Robin Kelly is more progressive than Justin Oberman, but Oberman is clearly just casting about for an elected office of some kind, and Kelly has more experience.

Cook County Assessor
Joseph Berrios is the ultimate machine candidate, and he also has massive conflict of interest in holding this position. Robert Shaw is a joke (and pretty funny if you read some of Joravsky’s reporting on this race). Vote for Ray Figueroa.

County Board
If you live on the South Side, your commissioner is probably Jerry Butler, who is a solid machine incumbent. Vote for Monica Torres-Linares.

Water Reclamation District
I don’t know anything about these candidates, so here’s the Sierra Club’s endorsements: Todd Connor, Mariyana Spyropoulos, and Kari Steele.


Theses on the arrest of Henry Louis Gates

Thanks to our liberal criminal justice system, this maniac is already back on the streets.
1) The arrest itself probably had less to do with race than it did with the fact that most cops are bullies and will become enraged if you challenge their absolute power over you.

2) Where race clearly was the dominant factor is with the person who called the police because she saw a black man pushing on a door in a fancy neighborhood.

3) But concentrating on the particulars of the case is a distraction. The reason an incident like this turns into a topic of national conversation is that it dramatizes major social issues. But instead of confronting these issues head-on, people get bogged down in irrelevant details and only indirectly express their feelings on the actual matter at hand.

4) Opinion has broadly fallen into two categories: 'if even some fancy professor who is black gets arrested for doing nothing, that proves racism is alive and well', and 'it's not racism, stop making me feel guilty about being white'.

5) The 'racism still exists' side is clearly right, especially when you consider the massive disparities in incarceration rates between whites and blacks. But more than a little of the outrage on the liberal side has to do with the fact that it was a black professional who was targeted. After all, poor blacks come in for this kind of harassment every day but it's just a matter of course. This point was nicely displayed in the comments of a white person married to a black professional, who said, “Even here in this diverse area [Chicago's Hyde Park] I’ve heard people say, ‘Look at those black guys coming toward us.’ I say, ‘Yes, but they’re wearing lacrosse shorts and Calvin Klein jeans. They’re probably the kids of the professor down the street.’ You have to be able to discern differences between people.” Or as New York Time columnist Charles Blow put it regarding his own first experience of police abuse, "We were the good guys — dean’s list students with academic scholarships. I was the freshman class president. This wasn’t supposed to happen to us."

6) In other words, many liberals would be satisfied if we could only replace racism with class hatred - in particular, class hatred directed against the ghetto underclass. No surprise here - liberals have always found race-based inequality repulsive but considered class inequality part of the natural order of things.

7) Ironically, the existence of the ghetto underclass is one of the main social phenomena that still make racist ideas plausible, and which drives the substitution of race markers for class markers that is such a striking part of the urban experience. It's this process of misrecognition that is behind some white people's casual fear of blacks (criticized by the proponent of class hatred above), as well as racial profiling by police and the hysteria at the suburban Philadelphia swimming club earlier this summer. After all, the ghetto is horrifically violent - undergoing a perpetual crisis far more disturbing than the groundless arrest of a privileged black Harvard professor. Let's say you see every night on the evening news that yet again some black kids have shot people, but you have no knowledge of history or the economy to make sense of this (lord knows the media don't provide it, and politicians, pundits, and even community activists don't discuss it). If you do have a set of racial stereotypes to draw on instead, it's not at all unreasonable to conclude that there's something about black people that makes them dangerous.

8) The point is, racism is not a communicable disease. People don't internalize ideas simply because someone tells them to. For these ideas to be compelling, there need to be social phenomena that seem to confirm them. The existence of a racially-specific ghetto underclass, in concert with nearly universal ignorance of how the ghetto was made and why it persists, and combined with the suppression of class as an explanatory variable in this country, is one of the most powerful factors behind continued acceptance of racial stereotyping.

9) If you want to eliminate this kind of racial inequality, you can't simply rail against "American racism" or demand that ignorant white people recognize the difference between good (professional) and bad (poor) black people. You have to attack the structural sources of the problem - by abolishing the ghetto.


Illinois General Assembly squanders its chance at redemption

If you thought the problem with Illinois politics was Rod Blagojevich, the embarrassing denouement of the state legislature's spring session has proved you wrong.

After six years of paralysis as Blagojevich, House Speaker Mike Madigan, and Senate President Emil Jones played an infantile blame game, at the beginning of the year the General Assembly was presented with an incredible chance to undo the accumulated damage to our state. Last year Emil Jones abruptly retired (on his way out enfeoffing his son in his Senate seat, which is now apparently inheritable property). He was replaced by John Cullerton, a North Side Senator with a reputation as a reformer. Then Blagojevich was indicted and subsequently removed from office in January, replaced by reformer Pat Quinn.

The new alignment of forces in Springfield came just in time for state government to tackle an enormous budget deficit of $12 billion, caused partly by the economic crisis and partly by decades of budgetary mismanagement. At the same time Springfield had the opportunity to finally pass a state capital bill - 10 years overdue - to fund investment in roads, schools, and transit, and got its best chance in decades to make reforms that might start to address Illinois's culture of public corruption.

Four months later we can see what the legislature has done with all this promise: mostly tossed it in the garbage.

A capital bill was finally passed, and it included a slight improvement in the funding ratio of transit to roads (now 1:1.5 instead of the previous 1:2) as well as two major victories: $850 million in rail investment for Illinois and $425 million for green jobs and job training in weatherization focused on poor areas in the state. But the total funding for transit is barely enough to keep the system limping along, much less expand it to meet current needs, and the revenues are largely to be raised from a regressive expansion of gambling and sales taxes rather than the far more useful increase in the state gas tax that was discussed early on.

The legislature also passed a raft of measures supposedly aimed at eliminating corruption, including a couple of truly useful ones. But on the three most important issues - campaign finance, gerrymandering, and the overwhelming power of the legislative leaders - reforms were ignored or shot full of holes. What we need is publicly financed elections, a nonpartisan process for the drawing of legislative districts, and restrictions on the nearly dictatorial power that the House speaker and Senate president currently wield. What we got was a lot of hypocritical speechifying about how the General Assembly was cleaning up Illinois politics.

The biggest failure of all was the budget. Illinois faces a massive decline in revenues because of the economic crisis, combined with a long-term structural deficit. That leaves us with a gaping $12 billion deficit - nearly 1/4 of the state's spending is currently unfunded!

This should have been an opportunity to rectify some of the injustices of the Illinois tax system while raising the revenue needed to fund essential services. Illinois has the fifth lowest tax burden in the country as a percentage of income, but that burden is distributed by class in such a way as to make the state's already unacceptable inequalities even worse. The bottom twenty percent of state residents by income faces the fourth-highest tax burden in the country, while the top one percent ranks 40th in the country.
The problem is that Illinois suffers from a constitutionally-mandated flat tax, which skews tax assessments against the poor and in favor of the wealthy. Amending the constitution to abolish the flat tax is an urgent priority, but in the meantime the fiscal crisis gave us an opportunity to make significant reforms to the tax system, making it both fairer and more sound at the same time.

The Senate seized that opportunity and passed Senator James Meeks's bill. Meeks has fought heroically for years to reduce Illinois's appalling school funding inequalities, and this tax reform would begin that process in addition to raising revenue and making the tax burden more equitable. The Senate bill would permanently raise the personal income tax from 3 to 5 percent, but it would cushion the blow to the middle class and exempt the working poor by tripling the earned income tax credit, raising the personal exemption from $2,000 to $3,000, and doubling the state property tax credit. The bill also included $2 billion in spending cuts, in addition to the $5 billion in revenue it would raise.

Senate President Cullerton's leadership this term has been somewhat disappointing, as he maneuvered away from raising gas taxes and has issued several apologias for the General Assembly's failure to pass robust measures against corruption. But his championing of the Meeks bill, which had been driven forward by the Senate’s African-American caucus, was a strong assertion of his independence from House Speaker Madigan and a lonely progressive bright spot in the otherwise barren General Assembly performance.

Madigan, on the other hand, has once again demonstrated that, now that Blagojevich is gone, he is the problem in Illinois politics. Wielding nearly dictatorial powers over his chamber, he chose not to bring the Meeks bill for a vote and instead put forward a wholly inadequate temporary tax increase, which he then blithely allowed to meet a crushing defeat, 74-42. Madigan himself voted for this bill, but he used none of his power to bring the members into line behind it. As Rich Miller, one of the most informed and nonpartisan commentators on Illinois politics, put it:
You cannot tell me with a straight face that Speaker Madigan did any serious heavy lifting this session. When real leadership was required, he sat back and let the train of government go completely off the tracks.
Meeks himself agrees:
"You have been campaigning for a tax hike for 20 years, and nothing has happened," Meeks said. "Why? What's the one thing that has remained constant in those 20 years? Michael Madigan as a leader in the House. Everybody else in leadership is gone. If Madigan wanted this bill passed, it would have been passed."
Madigan is not the only villain here. Quinn's potential competitors for the 2010 Democratic nomination for governor, including Attorney General Lisa Madigan (Michael Madigan's daughter) and Comptroller Dan Hynes, have resorted to irresponsible demagogy against the prospect of raising taxes, as have the Republicans. But Madigan - probably the most powerful individual in Illinois politics - is the one who could have solved the problem, and has instead stood in the way.

Quinn, on the other hand, has fought doggedly, if occasionally ineptly, for a fair resolution to the crisis, and he is by far the most commendable candidate for governor next year. He continues to push for a resolution to this mess, and has called the General Assembly back into session for further negotiations and another vote next week. If Madigan again lets the tax increase die, the consequences will be dire: catastrophic cuts to state programs in healthcare, education, and aid to the most vulnerable people in the state - the developmentally disabled, poor children, recovering drug addicts, the homebound elderly, and many others.

Here is how your elected representatives voted on each of the budget bills: House and Senate. Call them and voice your support for HB 174, the Meeks bill, which is by far the best solution to this debacle. If they vote against essential state services, they have no right to your vote next year.


Sweatshops a key feature of the best of all possible worlds

A comment on the previous post:
sweat shops are an easy target and are often misunderstood by outsiders. I went to a talk at Northwestern given by Nicholas Kristof on how in nearly every southeastern asian country sweat shops are the only REAL way out of prostitution (the only other line of work available to young girls there). sure sweat shops suck, but they want the work, they want the business, and its really the best we can give them.

what do you think about that viewpoint? i'm just looking at this from a realist perspective.
Is it really the best we can give them? Yes, Kristof is well-known as one of the most prominent sweatshop Candides of our time, but as usual this argument rests on an appalling reductionism in the social and economic context that produces sweatshops and a profound and debilitating pessimism about what we can do about it.

Usually sweatshop apologists ignore the coercive market forces that push people into such employment and simply say "they want the jobs". Well, if your rural economy had been destroyed by a flood of subsidized agribusiness imports or the destruction of collective forms of social security, you might "want" a degrading and debilitating job too.

But let's assume away the real social forces that produce the impersonal violence necessary to create a labor supply for sweatshops. What's wrong with legislating basic safety measures, decent wages, and a right to organize for those who work in these factories? This falls far short of establishing working conditions that might be truly self-actualizing for everyone involved, but could even Pangloss himself object to such minimal reforms?

The answer of the apologists, which is generally overplayed but has more than a kernel of truth, is that such regulations will destroy the very jobs we want to improve (more here). Even if the capacity of mobile capital to drive down work standards by playing poor countries off against each other were eliminated by establishing strictly enforced global minimum standards, the fundamental problem would remain: lower levels of exploitation means lower profits and fewer jobs. On the other hand, over the long term a high rate of exploitation yields increasing levels of overaccumulation as workers are unable to afford the products they produce, and we get crises like the Great Depression, the stagflation of the '70s, or the current disaster. On the third hand, during those periods when capitalist expansion proceeds without crisis, its distinctive style of growth steadily destroys the ecological basis of continued human life.

In other words, capitalism offers horrific working conditions for the global majority and environmentally disastrous levels of consumption for the remainder, all punctuated by crises that regularly yield social destruction on levels akin to war. Sweatshops are a necessary feature of this system, and might seem a rational solution to certain local problems created by wider capitalist dynamics. But when we view the system in its totality, we can recognize sweatshops and environmental crisis alike as just more of Krugman's "paradoxes" - phenomena that reveal the irrationality and unsustainability of capitalism as a whole.


Capitalism is irrational. Where's the paradox?

Paul Krugman is the only indispensable mainstream opinion writer we have. Unlike most of the others, when you get done reading a Krugman column you don't feel like you've actually lost knowledge. Krugman combines a healthy liberal politics with a deep understanding of economics and an ability to put all this in accessible language, and he makes most other columnists look like amateurs.

But he's still a liberal, and he's still an economist. That means he's incapable of giving any sort of fundamental critique of the economic forces he's made a career of explaining. Take this passage from his column today, on a theme he's been pursuing for months now:
We’re suffering from the paradox of thrift: saving is a virtue, but when everyone tries to sharply increase saving at the same time, the effect is a depressed economy. We’re suffering from the paradox of deleveraging: reducing debt and cleaning up balance sheets is good, but when everyone tries to sell off assets and pay down debt at the same time, the result is a financial crisis.

And soon we may be facing the paradox of wages: workers at any one company can help save their jobs by accepting lower wages, but when employers across the economy cut wages at the same time, the result is higher unemployment.
Here’s how the paradox works. Suppose that workers at the XYZ Corporation accept a pay cut. That lets XYZ management cut prices, making its products more competitive. Sales rise, and more workers can keep their jobs. So you might think that wage cuts raise employment — which they do at the level of the individual employer.

But if everyone takes a pay cut, nobody gains a competitive advantage. So there’s no benefit to the economy from lower wages. Meanwhile, the fall in wages can worsen the economy’s problems on other fronts.
The language of paradox here naturalizes capitalist dynamics, distracting attention from the more fundamental question - what on earth are we doing with a system that converts individual merit into collective disaster?

These so-called paradoxes are just more examples of the perverse incentives built into market economies. Sweatshop clothes are cheaper than those produced under decent working conditions, so the rational individual will choose the socially destructive product. Companies that force the costs of the pollution they produce onto society win a competitive advantage, so the environment is steadily destroyed that the individual consumer might save 50 cents. Cutting corners on quality means higher profits - even at the cost of seriously injuring or killing the consumer - so the fairly free markets of China have churned out scandal after scandal of tainted food and drugs.

As with Krugman's "paradoxes", these phenomena illustrate a fundamental truth of capitalism - brutally rational at the individual level, it is insanely irrational as a whole. Even more terrifying, altho the economic system was created by humans and only exists thru our collective institutions and individual behaviors, its logic exists as something beyond our control, acting upon us as an external force animated by unstable, mysterious laws.

This helps explain the widespread portrayal of the economic crisis as a kind of natural disaster rather than what it is: a creation of human beings. We have to start aggressively making the point that capitalism, like the crises and social devastation it endlessly produces, is a human invention and could be ended once and for all if we so chose.


The existential dread of the health insurance industry

This is worth reading:
"in 1999, Americans spent $1,059 per capita on [health insurance] administration compared with only $307 spent in Canada."

"about 85 percent of this excess administrative overhead can be attributed to the highly complex private health insurance system in the United States."
Of course, we already know that the US spends two to three times more per capita on healthcare than the other rich countries - but unlike them, it does not cover everyone and health outcomes and customer satisfaction are lower.

In other words, the government is a much more efficient provider of health insurance. So it's no surprise that the insurance companies are bringing all their power to bear against the possibility of a public health insurance option. In essence, the government would offer a Medicare account to anyone in the country who wanted to join. As long as the option weren't hamstrung from the start by constraints imposed by the insurance industry's shills in Congress, and as long as the playing field were leveled with a provision that all insurance companies must accept anyone regardless of preexisting conditions, the government would over time eliminate most or all competitors because it is a more efficient provider. In light of the bizarre resistance to socialized medicine in this country, such a long drawn-out demonstration of the merits of single-payer healthcare may be the only way to win the health system we need.

But the insurance industry understands that on a level playing field with the government, it cannot survive. So we have to expect a bitter fight against this essential reform, and we have to do whatever we can to win it. Any health reform bill that does not include a public insurance option - and only one free of insurance industry poison pills - is not worthy of the name.


Green toilet paper

What's the deal with Americans? If there's some kind of behavior that's bad for the environment, we seem to always be its biggest fans. We drive the most, eat the most meat, buy the most stuff, build the most sprawl - and buy the softest toilet paper.

As far as I can tell, toilet paper made from recycled paper works just as well, but it doesn't have that soft feel that Americans apparently require. For that you have to cut down trees, including old-growth forests in Canada. So recycled-content toilet paper is a miniscule part of the American market, unlike in Europe and Latin America where it accounts for about 1/5 of sales.

According to Greenpeace, these are the brands best for the environment (the first number is percentage of recycled post-consumer waste, the second is overall recycled content. All avoid chlorine bleaching):

Green Forest 90 100
365 80 100
April Soft 80 100
Earth Friendly 80 100
Fiesta and Fiesta Green 80 100
Natural Value 80 100
Seventh Generation 80 100
Trader Joe’s 80 100

It's far more important, of course, to reduce/eliminate your driving and meat eating, buy less stuff, weatherize your home and switch your lightbulbs, etc. But if you can help save a tree you might as well.


We're far short of King's dream

As we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr's birthday and the inauguration of the first black American president, it's worth remembering what exactly King fought and died for. He believed in racial equality, democratic socialism, and an end to imperialism. It's a measure of how far we still have to go until we achieve King's vision and create a truly just society that Barack Obama only supports one of these principles.


Obama endorses the culture of impunity

The latest Obama disappointment is that he's not interested in investigating the crimes committed by the Cheney administration in torturing people and violating the civil liberties of US citizens. Congressional Democrats say they are more interested in enforcing the law, but given their generally spineless performance during the last eight years, I'm not holding my breath. Rule-of-law conservatives, who can marshal unlimited outrage over the similar crimes of official enemies and even over petty street crime, are nowhere to be seen.

Obama explained that violations of the law under Cheney should not be prosecuted because he believes “that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” The nation's prisoners - who constitute one-fourth of the world's total and are mostly in jail for nonviolent offenses - may be disappointed to learn that their less significant crimes do not qualify for such treatment. Philosophers of justice, however, may wish to further develop this new theory that crimes committed in the past need not be prosecuted.

More to the point, Obama explained that he has “to make sure that, for example, at the C.I.A., you’ve got extraordinarily talented people who are working very hard to keep Americans safe. I don’t want them to suddenly feel like they’ve got to spend their all their time looking over their shoulders.” He did not explain why we would want "extraordinarily talented" torturers to remain at the CIA.

In abandoning his campaign rhetoric, Obama has signaled his complete acceptance of the culture of impunity that surrounds the country's leaders. Some "extreme left-wing" Democrats who take human rights more seriously are willing to tear at the edges of this culture, but even they dare not raise the most monstrous crimes: initiating wars of aggression and extensive violations of the laws of war.

These acts are not even thinkable as crimes as long as the nationalist discourse of American righteousness remains intact. The task of human rights campaigners and progressives must not be limited to the legalistic demand of prosecuting those who break the law. It must extend to a radical critique of America's place in the world and to changing the culture of popular nationalism that has sustained the imperial agenda of presidents both Democrat and Republican for the last century and more.


Density makes great cities

If you could only pick one measure to predict whether a city is awesome or not, make it density. The list below of the top 50 American cities ranked by density (population/sq mile) also gives a very rough ordering of cities stretching from great places to live to horrific suburban wasteland "cities". Of course there are problems with using municipal boundaries, which are pretty arbitrary, as the cutoff point, and things like park land or industrial areas can bring down your score. But generally speaking, lots of people close together means good architecture, diversity of culture and entertainment, good transit, more space given over to living and less to cars, more interesting stores and fewer chains, and a sense of place that cannot be found at a strip mall or TGIFriday's. Density is also a good measure of how environmentally sustainable a city is.

The best way to promote density is to discourage cars. We all should take public transit whenever possible, of course, because a strong CTA makes for a stronger Chicago, and it's one of the best ways to fight global warming in your own life. But individual action is not enough - the only way to increase density and sustainability is by increasing the cost of driving (raise the gas tax, increase the cost of parking and other fees associated with driving, implement congestion pricing), improving public transit and biking infrastructure, and focusing on transit-oriented development (including zoning for higher density) rather than sprawl. People living in the suburbs remain the biggest obstacle, because they elect politicians who are afraid to make the necessary reforms restricting car culture. We could just wait until oil scarcity or global warming make the suburbs obsolete, but the costs to the environment and future generations would be very steep. We need to start figuring out how we can get suburbanites and other drivers on our side in the fight to essentially destroy their way of life. Even New York, the densest and most sustainable city in the country, hasn't figured it out yet. So we have a lot of work to do, and despite Obama's political timidity, this can't wait until the economy starts expanding again.

1 New York City 26,403.8
13 San Francisco 16,632.4
3 Chicago 12,752.2
21 Boston 12,172.3
6 Philadelphia 11,232.8
43 Miami 10,153.2
27 Washington, DC 9,316.9
36 Long Beach 9,157.2
20 Baltimore 8,058.8
2 Los Angeles 7,876.4
44 Oakland 7,120.9
46 Minneapolis 6,969.4
11 Detroit 6,853.5
24 Seattle 6,714.8
23 Milwaukee 6,212.0
40 Cleveland 6,165.0
10 San Jose 5,116.9
49 Honolulu 4,336.7
28 Las Vegas 4,222.7
37 Sacramento 4,187.4
29 Louisville 4,126.1
35 Fresno 4,096.3
30 Portland 3,939.8
8 San Diego 3,772.4
26 Denver 3,615.6
50 Arlington 3,475.7
9 Dallas 3,470.3
15 Columbus 3,383.1
4 Houston 3,371.8
42 Omaha 3,370.8
38 Mesa 3,171.0
33 Atlanta 3,162.3
7 San Antonio 2,808.3
5 Phoenix 2,781.7
16 Austin 2,610.6
32 Tucson 2,499.7
34 Albuquerque 2,484.0
48 Raleigh 2,409.2
18 Memphis 2,327.6
22 El Paso 2,262.8
19 Charlotte 2,232.1
14 Indianapolis 2,162.8
45 Tulsa 2,152.5
47 Colorado Springs 1,943.4
17 Fort Worth 1,828.0
41 Virginia Beach 1,712.7
39 Kansas City 1,408.4
25 Nashville 1,152.6
12 Jacksonville 970.9
31 Oklahoma City 833.8


A liberal solution to the automakers crisis

I've already discussed my own solution to the auto industry crisis, but what's interesting is that there is another viable solution to the problem - what we might call the liberal solution as against my radical solution. The American auto companies suffer from two key competitive disadvantages in labor compensation. The first one is that they have to pay for their employees' health insurance. Since the other rich countries all have socialized medicine (which is far more efficient, affordable, and equitable than the USA's insane system), foreign car importers to the United States have a major cost advantage.

The second disadvantage is against not just importers, but foreign automakers who manufacture in the United States as well. As this article shows, the Big 3 automakers pay their workers an average of $73/hour, while Japanese manufacturers in the United States pay only $49/hour. About half of this difference is a result of higher pay and benefits won by the unionized workforce of the American companies that the nonunionized workers of the foreign companies are denied. The rest is a result of Detroit's payment of "legacy costs" - pensions and health insurance commitments that are higher for the Big 3 because their retired workforce is much larger than that of the foreign automakers.

So the liberal solution would involve:

1) Implementing some form of single-payer health insurance, like Medicare for all. Not only is this the only way to rein in healthcare costs and extend coverage to everyone in the country, it would also remove a major burden on the carmakers and every other business that must shoulder the cost of health insurance for its employees.

2) Strengthening unions. The problem is not that Detroit's workers make too much, it's that their foreign competitors exploit their workers to a greater extent, earning them an unfair competitive advantage.

3) Make private pensions less important or eliminate them altogether. We've now seen the results of the brilliant idea that one's retirement income should rest on the whims of the stock market. Restore the public commitment to providing for the elderly.

Okay, this solution does not fundamentally challenge capitalism in any way, so it's not radical. It would simply make the automakers competitive by reconstituting the postwar Fordist production regime - a quintessentially liberal solution. So it tells you quite a bit about today's political situation that not even the so-called liberals would dare call for such modest reforms.


Well it's about time

Rod Blagojevich arrested for massive corruption? If you're surprised then you haven't been following Illinois politics at all.

But this?!
At various times, in exchange for the Senate appointment [replacing Barack Obama], Blagojevich discussed obtaining:

A substantial salary for himself at a either a non-profit foundation or an organization affiliated with labor unions;

Placing his wife on paid corporate boards where he speculated she might garner as much as $150,000 a year;

Promises of campaign funds – including cash up front; and

A cabinet post or ambassadorship for himself.

Just last week, on December 4, Blagojevich allegedly told an advisor that he might "get some (money) up front, maybe" from Senate Candidate 5, if he named Senate Candidate 5 to the Senate seat, to insure that Senate Candidate 5 kept a promise about raising money for Blagojevich if he ran for re-election. . . . On November 7, while talking on the phone about the Senate seat with Harris and an advisor, Blagojevich said he needed to consider his family and that he is "financially" hurting, the affidavit states. Harris allegedly said that they were considering what would help the "financial security" of the Blagojevich family and what will keep Blagojevich "politically viable." Blagojevich stated, "I want to make money," adding later that he is interested in making $250,000 to $300,000 a year, the complaint alleges.

On November 10, in a lengthy telephone call with numerous advisors . . . Blagojevich and others discussed various ways Blagojevich could "monetize" the relationships he has made as governor to make money after leaving that office. . . .

Throughout the intercepted conversations, Blagojevich also allegedly spent significant time weighing the option of appointing himself to the open Senate seat and expressed a variety of reasons for doing so, including: frustration at being "stuck" as governor; a belief that he will be able to obtain greater resources if he is indicted as a sitting Senator as opposed to a sitting governor; a desire to remake his image in consideration of a possible run for President in 2016; avoiding impeachment by the Illinois legislature; making corporate contacts that would be of value to him after leaving public office; facilitating his wife's employment as a lobbyist; and generating speaking fees should he decide to leave public office.
This suggests that Blagojevich was not just exceptionally corrupt even by Illinois standards - and that's already quite an achievement - but that he was compulsively corrupt, that he persisted with ever-increasing levels of corruption even after any well-grounded run-of-the-mill corrupt politician would have realized that he was done for. Blagojevich, on the other hand, thought he could either get a lot of money by selling the Senate seat or appoint himself, which would help position him both to repulse an indictment and run for president. The only way to interpret this is as pathology.

Lt Gov Pat Quinn, who has called for Blagojevich to resign, is next in line for governor. That would be a marked improvement - Quinn has a reputation as a reformer in Illinois politics, he supported the constitutional convention and has spoken out on making the tax system less regressive and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Quinn may not be as aggressively progressive as we might like, but getting him the governor's mansion might be exactly what we need to start cleaning up the state and making progress on key issues like the state capital funding bill and getting rid of the flat income tax that have been mired for years in the dysfunction created by Blagojevich's megalomania.



According to a report using 2000 census data, these are the top ten US metropolitan areas with households that do not own a car:

New York City - 42 percent
Jersey City - 30 percent
Waterbury, Connecticut - 16 percent
New Orleans - 14 percent
Philadelphia - 13 percent
Newark - 12 percent
San Francisco - 12 percent
Chicago - 11 percent
Los Angeles - 11 percent


Finally, some good news

Progressives have taken quite a beating in the Obama cabinet announcements. Free marketeers Summers or Geithner are the options at Treasury, militarists Clinton and Kerry are top candidates for the State Department, and Commerce nearly went to Penny Pritzker, whose main qualifications were that she inherited a lot of money and was effective at convincing a lot of rich people to donate to Obama.

Fortunately, Pritzker has taken herself out of consideration after it became clear that her involvement in a collapsed bank deeply implicated in the subprime lending market might lead to bad publicity. (Update: a good article on the Pritzker family's long history of shady business dealings. It turns out they were pioneers in the use of foreign tax shelters to avoid paying their share of the tax burden - a practice, incidentally, that was a key early factor in driving the financialization of the economy because it forced the US to deregulate its banking system so rich people's capital wouldn't all go overseas.) And we might also escape Clinton because her husband's financial dealings have been so questionable. But it's cold comfort when you have to hope for self-sabotage to avoid neoliberal/corporate/imperialist nominees from an ostensibly liberal president-elect.

On another key appointment, I'm still not sure if we finally have an ally or not. Tom Daschle will be the new Secretary of Health and Human Services, and he will also be given the lead role in crafting a health reform proposal. Daschle co-wrote a book on reforming healthcare, which I haven't seen yet, but if the National Review is right, he supports
mandates on individuals and businesses to buy or offer coverage; new government-run insurance options for the under-65 population; a national governmental agency offering anyone who wants it to sign up for insurance outside of work; large new subsidy programs; and much more government involvement in determining what is and is not effective medical care.
If this is true, and if Daschle can use his experience as a former Senate leader to push reform thru Congress, then we have our first reason for optimism.

The reason I had to resort to quoting National Review is that all the other accounts focus on Daschle's plan to create a Federal Health Board, which would regulate the entire health industry and, like the Federal Reserve Board, be insulated from political pressure. While such a body could no doubt bring some order out of the absurdly complex mix of inefficient private insurers and the restricted and fragmented public insurers, it's not at all clear that creating an unaccountable body to do this is the right way to go. I will try to get ahold of Daschle's book and figure out the details. In the meantime, the best indication that Daschle might be our friend is his incredible glasses.

If the Daschle appointment is our only (ambiguous) ray of light coming from the emerging Obama administration, there is one development we can celebrate without reserve: Henry Waxman has usurped John Dingell's position as chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Dingell is an old (really old - he first joined Congress in 1955) friend of the auto industry, and has been a maddening obstacle for years to finally taking action on the climate crisis. The Democratic caucus voted 137 to 122 to bypass the seniority system and hand control to Waxman, who should help advance legislation to fight global warming. But the big question remains - will the government act forcefully enough to avert disaster, or will new laws be too little too late? We'll have to wait for more concrete signals from the Obama administration, but in the meantime we can make our demands clear on the Global Day of Action on Climate, December 6 (in Chicago at Millenium Park, 11am).