Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Being Poor

Cross-posted to Senator Edwards' guest blog at TPM Cafe. (Yay! -- So far it seems great!)

Senator Edwards, you are a) my hero, and b) spot-on, but still nibbling around the edges. I was raised upper-middle class, briefly had an upper-middle class lifestyle, then faced real poverty and financial need for several years before crawling back to lower-class.
While the ridiculous costs imposed on poor people solely because they are poor are an important part of the problem, the deeper evil is in society's current mindset that the poor deserve to be poor. As Denzel Washington's character in Cry Freedom, Steven Biko, explained about the grinding-down of apartheid, the genius of the belief system is in convincing poor people themselves that it is their own fault.
Far too many poor people get the idea that they don't deserve better than they've got. Government seems to have exited the business of helping poor people and gone into the business of humiliating them. Everything the government does is heavily dosed with the idea tha you have failed and need remedial life help. Plus, if we help you too much, you won't have learned your lesson about just how horribly you have failed.
Here's a newsflash: the poor New Yorkers I've met are not any smarter or dumber, harder-working or lazier, taller or shorter, than the rich New Yorkers I once worked with. Like Americans generally, they are people of infinite variety, strength and weakness.
When Ronald Reagan asked, "are you better now than you were four years ago," he started us on a path of "me-ism" which has wrecked our Great Society. Our society shouldn't be "every-man-for-himself," nor should it be about which government programs can be shown to be the most efficacious; rather, our society should reflect our Judeo-Christian-Islamo heritage and be premised on the belief that until we are all doing well, none of us are doing well enough.
Senator Edwards, let me know what I can do to help you in 08! Can't wait to see you as a blogger!

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Ronald Reagan – Father of the “Me” Generation

Twenty-Four Years Ago candidate Ronald Reagan launched our society on its present course when he asked Americans, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”

I am increasingly convinced that this marks a decisive turning point in the public life of our American society. From this remark to the present day, our society has been defined by a single-minded emphasis on this one question: “How am I doing?” While this insight is by no means original to me, I am struck more and more every day how much it explains about the sorry state of our national civic life.


When I was a kid, the news would report on how we as a society was doing. Our average income was up! For the 24th year in a row! Our standard of living, already undeniably the highest in the world, was up again! Our literacy rate had achieved near-impossible levels of success. Our government was focused on improving the lives of what we called the “less fortunate.” It seemed to matter how the least amongst us were doing, and what those who were called “fortunate” worried about doing enough to give back to society.

Today, of course, under the insidious guide of personal responsibility, poor people are poor because they have made bad choices: either they failed to get the education they should have, or they took jobs in shaky businesses, or they failed to prevent terrible injury, or whatever. Any reason that someone might be poor today comes back to one thing in our modern era of personal responsibility: the individual involved must have made a mistake at some point.

And of course, the happy people of means have much to be proud of: their entrepreneurial spirit, their hardwork, their brains their innovation, whatever. Rich people are rich because they deserve to be. Money has become an almost perfect substitute for human and/or moral worth.

The pre-Reagan era of collective responsibility was an easy target. To hear the Republicans tell the tale, nothing was ever anybody’s fault. Can’t get cable tv? It’s the government’s fault, the right would have their strawmen cry. Can’t get a job, the strawman would ask? Blame corporate America.

To make this new paradigm work, the right needed to disengage government from a decades-long reliance on social science. Social science promised to use the best methods from the world of hard science to help us discern and alleviate the problems of society. Data collection was of course central to the enterprise. For the right, this meant playing the left’s game.

So we chucked social science in favor of anecdotal evidence. Reagan’s welfare queens. Militant gays. The rise of the living proof in the form of an ordinary person attending the State of the Union.

And so, the social scientists have continued to labor in obscurity, collecting data that the right deems irrelevant. What’s important they say is not the world as is exists (the derisively named “Reality-based world”), but the world as we imagine it should exist (a world they might like to call the “Leadership World”).

I’m a big believer in the productive power of balance – proportional levels reality and imagination. And I do believe that we on the left have forgotten the power of imagination and thought leadership, and relied too heavily on the value of measuring and managing reality as we find it. But while we may be weak, we at least are on the side of angels. And we do not spurn outright the other half of these particular paired opposites. The right rejects the notion that data and reality is even relevant. I’m not sure why they even fund the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation. I’m sure there are people on the right who would turn the funding off on these tomorrow.

My formulation of our “brand DNA” has been “Community. Responsibility. Opportunity.” And the phrase that typifies it for me is, “Are we better off than we were four years ago?”

If the never-varying cycle of generational partisan shifts is 36 years, the question is whendo we start measuring. If we take it from 1980, we've got a ways to go. But I'd be excited about helping to build a movement that culminates with our candidateushering in the "We" generation. I just hope it won't take til 2016 for it to happen.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

To my thousands of readers:

I haven't posted in some time cause I haven't felt like it. Too bad. Buy a comic book. Read the newspaper. Get a life.

From Josh Marshall:

Add to this the fact that the president is clocking in at under 30% support on Social Security and most Americans now understand that he wants to dismantle the program and the whole thing really becomes a no-brainer.

In fact, Dems should really start making the point now that they are the ones who stopped President Bush from phasing out Social Security this year.

Be loud, be proud.

Here's a chance to take a negative (opposing the idiot President) and turn it into a positive: Democrats, the people who saved Social Security. Again.

How come if this is so easy for me it's darn near impossible for the likes of Joe Biden?