The Latest Attack on the Census is an Attack on All of Us

The Latest Attack on the Census is an Attack on All of Us

September 30, 2009

The latest fight over the Decennial Census is part of a 30 years’ war over efforts to count everyone in America, including immigrants, minorities and poor people. It’s become an ongoing war, because the Census carries such large consequences. The Constitution mandates a census every decade, because the founders saw a regular, state-by-state population count as the best way to determine how many seats each state gets in the House of Representatives. Beyond that, as Washington’s role has expanded, the Census provides the data used to distribute a growing slice of federal spending among the states and their cities and counties — nearly $400 billion worth these days — and to build the baselines and updates used to evaluate the effectiveness of hundreds of federal programs.

Until this year, the fights over the Decennial Census have focused not on who should be counted — the answer has always been everyone — but on how hard the government should try to find the one to two percent of us who are often overlooked. It matters, because people who don’t return their Census forms and then avoid Census workers trying to follow up — the Bureau calls them the “undercounted” — are predominantly poor minorities, recent immigrants, and American Indians. So, they’re not distributed randomly across the states but rather concentrated in certain places — and this undercount costs those places part of their fair share of federal funds for roads, schools, medical care, parks and other things based on population. If the count were accurate, a number of big cities and states might be a little less financially strapped.

I follow all of this pretty closely, because as Under Secretary of Commerce in the late 1990s, I oversaw the Census Bureau planning and operations for the 2000 Census. The fight that time was over our plans to use a huge sample — some 1 million households — to find out exactly where and to what extent the undercounts happen, and then use that information to adjust the head count and make the final results more accurate. That was just what the National Academy of Sciences had recommended for the 1990 Census, which the first Bush White House rejected. When the undercount grew worse that time, the Academy came back with the same recommendation for 2000. This time, the Clinton administration approved, and the Census Bureau did it. But between the counting and the reporting, George W. Bush took office. The sample was discarded, and the undercount grew even worse.

The opposition to sampling in 2000 certainly seemed to be motivated by purely political concerns that counting all minorities would cost them federal funding or even seats in Congress. But the opposition wasn’t completely shameless: They balanced their attacks on sampling with support for spending as much as we asked for, to assemble the largest workforce of census counters in history and mount major advertising and civic outreach campaigns targeted to communities with large undercounts.

It will be worse this time. The 2010 Census planned by the Bush administration has no sample, and it’s too late now for the Obama team to design and carry out one in time. It’s also almost certain that the undercount will be even larger: The numbers of recent immigrants are way up, and the advertising campaigns aimed at minorities and the outreach to civic groups have been scaled back.

Now it’s getting truly ugly. Senator Bob Bennett, backed by the Wall Street Journal and right-wing cable TV and radio, has proposed to use the census to identify undocumented people, who would then be deliberately excluded from the count. In more than two centuries of the U.S. Census, it has always counted whoever is physically here — “inhabitants” in the term used in the first census of 1790 — regardless of their citizenship or other legal status. One reason is that everyone is protected by the law, so everyone should be counted in determining how many seats a state gets to write those laws. And whether or not someone has citizenship or residency papers, they still put claims on public services which the funding for those services should reflect.

The political and social implications of Bennett’s radical idea are enormous. California, for example, may have as many as 4 or 5 million undocumented inhabitants — exclude them and the state could lose perhaps a half-dozen seats in Congress and tens of billions of dollars in federal funds. Texas and other states with large Hispanic populations would lose seats and funding as well.

This change also could destroy the Census process, with incalculable costs for everyone. The Census doesn’t collect any information beyond people’s demographic characteristics — no names or data about their legal circumstances — and it’s so fastidious about people’s confidentiality that it won’t share any specific data with police, the FBI, or anybody. In 2000, for example, a form came back with a threat against the president scrawled across it — and the Census Bureau refused Secret Service demands to share the address. (It turned out to not matter, since the respondent was safely tucked away in a state prison.) The Bureau also knows that if the census process goes beyond demographics, tens of millions of people may assume that their information might be turned over to other parts of government, and the undercount would skyrocket. People would begin to worry that the IRS might compare the number of people counted in a household against the number of dependents claimed, or that child welfare services might discover that somebody is taking care of a cousin’s child and disapprove of it, or, most obviously, that the Immigration and Naturalization Service would come knocking.

The Census is the world’s largest scientific exercise and provides the basis not only to allocate federal funds and seats in Congress, but also to evaluate the effectiveness of countless federal, state and local programs. All of that would be at risk if the latest expression of anti-immigrant bias were ever to take hold of the decennial Census.

Message to World at the G-20 Summit: Don’t Depend on a Strong U.S. Recovery to Bail You Out

September 23, 2009

This week’s U.N. General Assembly and the countless, private discussions between presidents, premiers and prime ministers will range from climate change to terrorism, but most of the leaders are more preoccupied with the outlook for their economies. In this sense, the UN meeting is an opening act for the main attraction, the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh at the end of the week. There, the leaders will focus on new regulation for global capital flows and the institutions behind them, with some good doses of finger-pointing at the United States. (Christina Kirchner of Argentina, the world’s largest debt defaulter, couldn’t wait: She led yesterday with America-bashing at the UN.) But the blame game is really a plea that the United States help pull the rest of the world out of its ditch.

America, with 23.5 percent of worldwide GDP — Japan is second at 8.1 percent, followed by China with 7.3 percent — is the only country with the economic heft to move other nations. Much of our impact comes from our annual imports of $2.5 trillion, which help keep employment up in most other large economies. If we could get our imports growing strongly again, the world’s finger-pointing would turn into high-fives. But that depends on reviving American consumption and investment, and the outlook for that is mixed at best.

Washington’s optimists point to recent gains in a number of important indicators — but look closely, and they’re less encouraging. Retail sales in August were up 2.7 percent over July, for example. But that’s 5.3 percent below levels a year earlier, when things already were pretty grim. It’s the same story with other measures. Housing starts were up 1.5 percent in August, but down 29.6 percent from a year earlier; and industrial production was up 0.8 percent, to a level still nearly 11 percent below August 2008. These are the numbers that led Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen to caution that while the recession may be technically over, hard times could be with us for another year or longer.

The bottom line for most Americans is that the steep decline in the value of their investments and homes is driving them to cut back their spending and restore some savings. Mostly, they’re paring down the record credit card debt they ran up during both the first stage of the recession and an expansion before it which didn’t produce income gains. This spending slowdown is unlikely to change soon. And as we have argued here for more than a year, jobs will probably continue to contract for two or three years after this recession ends, just as they did after the 1990-1991 and 2001 downturns. It’s hardly a recipe for a recovery strong enough to lift U.S. incomes or the prospects of other economies.

Nor can we expect help from other countries boosting our exports. Of our five largest foreign markets, U.S. imports are still falling in three of them (Canada, China, and the UK); and American imports in all five (Mexico and Japan, plus the other three) are still running 17 percent to 27 percent below their levels a year earlier.

What if the modest pick-up we’re seeing now only reflects the President’s stimulus package finally kicking in? Republicans had some cynical fun a few months ago charging that the stimulus had failed, since everything was still headed down. Now, it’s the Democrats’ turn, as its effects increase over the next several months. The hard question is whether the economy will keep growing once the stimulus runs out. The administration‘s economic strategy depends on the stimulus triggering self-sustaining growth — by creating jobs, which boost spending and then, in turn, lead to more jobs, more demand, and finally more investment. That’s also the basis of their financial strategy, hoping that expanding growth will bring down foreclosures and bankruptcies, easing the pressures on banks so they can lend more.

Their economic logic is perfectly reasonable; but it may be a long shot in the world where we now find ourselves. And it certainly doesn’t take account of the possibility of yet another nasty shock to the economy. The most likely candidate is an implosion of securities based on commercial real estate. Price movements in commercial real estate have been running 12 to 16 months behind those in residential housing. So, they remained strong for more than a year after the housing bubble began to deflate — and then began to fall sharply in the last six months. Now, more and more commercial developers can’t keep their properties sufficiently occupied to service the loans they took out to build them. As they default, the securities and derivatives based on those loans also go bad. It could be another very nasty hit, with most of the impact falling on the regional and local banks across the country that made the loans. That’s why we’re already seeing a sharp rise in bank failures.

The good news is that the Fed and the Treasury have more advance notice this time, and they have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t. The bad news is that at after what we’ve already been through, Washington couldn’t borrow the money required to manage the failures of large numbers of big commercial banks, with all of the fallout, without risking the credit of the United States.

There’s a good chance we’ll dodge that particular bullet. But even if we do, the prospects for a strong U.S. recovery are slim, especially one strong enough to help the rest of the world. And that will be the biggest, unspoken disappointment at this week’s G-20 meetings.

The Democrats’ Surprising Emergence as a Real Governing Party

September 16, 2009

The Republican Party is reconstituting itself in ways that are reshaping the Democrats into a genuine governing party. The tip-off is the GOP’s growing inability — and that’s what it is — to engage with the President and congressional majority in any meaningful give-and-take about the deepest recession since the early 1930s or some form of health care reform. So, despite the Democrats’ incorrigible factionalism, they find themselves acting as a true governing party, in which new national directions are determined by negotiations within the party. That gives their divisions a different character: The conservative-to-moderate minority inside the Party has assumed the role which used to belong to mainstream Republicans — a loyal opposition calling for spending restraint, opposing tax increases, and remaining skeptical of bigger government. For all this, the Democrats have to thank the Republicans, whose shrinking base seems intent on remaking the party into a much more conservative, populist movement with little interest in governing.

The eclipse of traditional Republicans, evident in the sharp rightward turn of the House Republican caucus and most of the Bush presidency after year one, left the Party unable to use its hold on Congress and the White House to score real achievements even before their inability to respond effectively to the economic implosions of 2007 and 2008. Those failures not only made Barack Obama’s ascendance possible; they also weakened the political allegiance of millions of mainstream Republicans, leaving the GOP base largely in the hands of hard-right conservatives. John McCain’s nomination by happenstance briefly obscured the new character of the GOP base, but only until he chose Sarah Palin. Far from a vetting mistake, Ms. Palin’s nomination reflected an acute understanding of just how critical right-wing foot soldiers have become to the GOP’s electoral prospects. Their enthusiasm wasn’t enough to hold the White House; but with the Democrats choosing an African American newcomer to national politics, it was sufficient to run a credible race.

What’s new is the emergence of an even more extreme, grassroots movement led not by elected Republicans, but by such media figures as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Their interest lies not in governing but in ratings, which in turn have responded powerfully to their version of attack politics. The extreme nature of this populist movement is evident in their often, truly irrational reactions to the Obama presidency. This actually began during the campaign with fantastic notions about Mr. Obama’s alleged foreign birth, which cast his potential presidency as illegal and now might be said to cast normal negotiations with his administration as almost subversive. This extremism was even more obvious in the boisterous attacks at health care forums across the country, even featuring armed critics appearing at presidential events.

Traditional Republicans still dominate the corps of elected GOP offices; but most GOP Senators and governors apparently now believe that the movement has become too strong inside the Party to resist. (Translation: They’re afraid the movement could challenge them in primaries — and either win or weaken them enough to cost them re-election.) That’s most evident in their extraordinary gyrations to appease the movement — Chuck Grassley endorsing the notion that Obama believes in death panels, for example, and John McCain rejecting part of the Democrats’ health care plan that were drawn from his own proposals. And those are only a few examples of this groveling. There was also Bobby Jindal’s attacks on federal assistance for Louisiana Katrina victims, loud public threats by other GOP governors to refuse federal stimulus assistance (they all quietly took the money), and Tim Pawlenty’s recent quasi-secessionist threat to wall off Minnesota from new, Obama-inspired health care spending and reforms.

How utterly different this movement is from the Reaganism its followers sometimes pay lip service to. The Reagan White House, intent on actually governing, pursued countless compromises with Democrats and ultimately jettisoned cardinal conservative principles by raising taxes and negotiating with the Soviets to reduce nuclear arms. The new movement-driven GOP draws its character instead from the moralistic and nativist populism of Pat Buchanan’s challenge to George H.W. Bush’s traditional Republicanism and from the post-9/11 exclusionary politics of the second Bush’s presidency. The result is a GOP defined increasingly by a media-powered, outsider movement uninterested in governing and powerful enough to cow just about every Republican in Congress.

That leaves the Democrats in the position of governing party, with its own moderates assuming the role of a responsible opposition negotiating and compromising with the President and Democratic congressional leaders. And like Reagan and Clinton, the President is prepared to compromise too — for example, dedicating one-third of his stimulus to tax cuts which he probably knew would have little stimulus effect, and this week telegraphing his readiness to walk away from any element of health care reform that could cost him the Democratic votes he needs to enact it.

This is all very good news for professional Democrats, but maybe not for the rest of us. Almost all far-reaching reforms — Social Security, the nuclear test ban treaty, Medicare, the tax reforms of the 1980s, the WTO’s transformation of the rules of international trade, and even the brief balanced budget — have been bipartisan achievements. And today, Democrats cannot speak for the tens of millions of moderate conservatives who built mainstream Republicanism — although the President actually may have ambitions to do so. So with the far-right movement’s new power inside the GOP, moderate Democrats are all that’s left to keep a real debate going.

The Potential Cost of Political Paralysis: The Lesson of Japan

September 1, 2009

A political earthquake hit Japan this week, one which could hold important lessons for America’s current political stalemates. After a half-century of one-party rule, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was buried in parliamentary elections by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), a loose coalition of generally left-of-center opposition parties. The elections were less a matter of partisan competition than an explosion of pent-up disgust with an utterly failed political system personified by the LDP’s long rule. Ask yourself, what powerful popular forces could be unleashed here, if yet another presidency cannot manage to reform our dysfunctional health care system, restore rising wages for most American workers, and take steps to preserve the climate?

One striking aspect of this week’s events in Japan is how long they took to happen. For two decades, Japanese have lived with the consequences of economic stagnation and a feeble financial system, including declining incomes and wealth, as well as deflation. Japan’s private sector didn’t lose its edge — over the same years, for example, its auto companies became the world’s best, and Japanese companies adopted information technologies at a prodigious rate. The problem was consistently wrong-headed policies by a succession of LDP governments unwilling to enact any reforms that might impose costs on the entrenched interests — big banks, construction companies, small farmers, and more — vital to the LDP. Sound familiar?

Junichiro Koizumi’s prime ministership from 2001 to 2006 was a hiatus of sorts, but also a fluke and ultimately a failure: Following a series of scandals involving LDP leaders, the party gave ordinary LDP members a new role in choosing the next party leader — and was shocked when those members chose the outsider Mr. Koizumi. But he was a maverick sitting atop a corrupt parliamentary party determined to resist new policies to address the country’s deepening economic problems, and he finally left with little changed.

Our own outsider president has much more support within his own party in Congress than Koizumi did in Japan’s LDP-dominated Diet. Yet, Democrats in Congress are not immune from the corrosive politics of entrenched interests, pulling them in many directions that together could fatally weaken new policy directions for our long-festering problems with health care, wages and climate change. And if the current economic policies do not produce a strong recovery — and they might fail to do so — the pull of those interests and the push of rabid Republican opposition could produce a decade of stagnation here as well.

For now, President Obama may have the same advantage with the public that the LDP enjoyed for a generation — a discredited opposition. Republican leaders from Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney to Dick Armey and even John McCain thus far have offered the public little beyond a litany of emotion-laden grievances bound up in outlandish attacks on the President as a Marxist, an appeaser, and even a budding Hitler. They know better, but the attacks appease the far-right interests that now constitute much of the GOP’s diminished base. Moreover, the Republicans’ growing resistance to talk seriously with the White House and the majority party, about the serious challenges facing average Americans, comes from entrenched economic interests as determined to avoid any of the costs of change as those that hobbled the LDP for a generation.

Unlike Koizumi, President Obama won his office, in part, by putting together a financial as well as popular organization organized through the Internet, and so much less dependent on established interests. One way to break the stalemate might be to direct that organization to help fund congressional candidates relatively independent of those interests. But that would force the President to take on members of his own party, a risky and confrontational course at odds with his moderate and pragmatic temperament and political views. However, Mr. Obama has one other course open to him: Exercise the mobilizing leadership that won him the nomination, targeted this time to members of Congress rather than the millennial generation and independent voters. It will require knocking more heads together than he might like. He can do that — just ask Hillary — and our ability to avoid another decade of decline may lie in the balance.