The French Quarter and Downtown New Orleans are back in business, and the Jazz and Heritage Festival, at Fair Grounds Race Course in the Gentilly neighborhood, drew more than 400,000 patrons to its 40th anniversary program the weekends of 4/24-26 and 4/30-5/3. That’s slightly more than last year’s attendance, according to organizers. Many restaurants and bars that curtailed hours on weekdays last year stayed open in what approached regular hours this year, but business seemed to be down slightly, possibly due to economic concerns. Tipitina’s, which usually is jammed during JazzFest, did solid business overall, general manager and talent buyer Lindsay Adler told the New Orleans Times-Picayune, but not as well as last year.

But while the tourist attractions lead the Crescent City’s recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is still trying to get out of the trailer business in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. But as rents have doubled and tripled from pre-Katrina rates the lack of affordable housing is still one of the roadblocks to recovery.

Several deadlines have passed with trailer residents pleading for extensions, but at the urging of state and local officials, who were spurred by the complaints of neighbors, federal officials set 5/30 as the final deadline for emptying the 4,600 remaining FEMA trailers in Louisiana and Mississippi. The agency provided more than 143,000 households with temporary housing units after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita laid waste to the Gulf Coast in 2005 and the backwash from Katrina broke through levees and flooded New Orleans.

Federal law is supposed to limit the emergency housing to no more than 18 months, but bureaucratic bungling has delayed rebuilding programs. A plan to build 500 “Katrina cottages” with federal money has not produced a single unit. And only one-third of rental units in New Orleans had been rehabilitated, as an $869 mln program that was supposed to repair more than 18,000 small rental properties had resulted in fewer than 1,200 repairs by late March, the Times-Picayune reported.

Adding to the housing shortage was the decision of the Bush administration not to allow 4,500 families back into four public housing complexes that were lightly damaged by the floods. The Housing Authority of New Orleans, which is controlled by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, proceeded with demolition of the four complexes to make way for “mixed-income” housing developments that will reduce the pre-storm number of 6,606 public housing units with 3,343 public housing units, and 5,518 subsidized units with 1,765 subsidized units by 2010.

In Mississippi, 53% of those still living in trailers make less than $20,000 per year, according to the governor’s office. Gov. Haley Barbour (R) has asked the federal government for 5,000 additional subsidized housing vouchers, the Los Angeles Times reported (5/6).

The Road Home program for single-family homeowners has doled out $7.9 bln in rebuilding money to 124,000 homeowners in Louisiana, but the nonprofit advocacy group PolicyLink found that two out of three Louisianans who received Road Home money and four out of five New Orleans homeowners did not receive enough to cover repairs. The shortfall hit African-American neighborhoods particularly hard. In the Lower Ninth Ward, which was devastated when the nearby levee broke, most of the old structures have been removed. Eight new homes have been built incorporating solar power and other energy-efficient features with the assistance of Make It Right Foundation, a project of actor Brad Pitt, which hopes to build 150 houses in cooperation with neighborhood organizations and local builders (see makeitrightnola.org), but vacant lots predominate in what was formerly a working-class neighborhood.

Still, the population of New Orleans topped 300,000 in July 2008 for the first time since Katrina, according to a US Census estimate. The estimate, released 3/19, said the population of the seven-parish Greater New Orleans area grew slightly from 1.1 mln people in 2007 to 1.13 mln in 2008, though it was still under the 1.3 mln population estimated in July 2005, before Katrina struck on 8/29/05. At that time, the census estimated the city’s population at 455,000.

FOR PETE’S SAKE. One of the featured performers at the New Orleans JazzFest was Pete Seeger on the eve of his 90th birthday. He got rapturous applause at the headliners’ Acura Stage Saturday, 4/25, when he was introduced by JazzFest producer Quint Davis as the grandfather of JazzFest. Seeger performed with his grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, and friends in a set that quickly developed into a singalong. The following morning Seeger was interviewed at the JazzFest with his grandson and George Wein, who cofounded the Newport Folk Festival with Seeger in 1959. Wein helped to father the JazzFest along similar lines in 1969. Among Seeger’s remarks:

He is hopeful that young people will use new technology to save the world. “The Agricultural Revolution took thousands of years. The Industrial Revolution took hundreds of years. But the Information Revolution is taking place in a matter of a few decades. And if you use it, use the brains God gave us, miracles are going to happen.”

Ever modest, Seeger demurred at his accomplishments. “I’m simply a sower of seeds,” he said, recalling the parable in the New Testament. “Some seeds fall in the pathway and get stomped on and they don’t grow. Some fall on the rocks and they don’t grow. But some seeds fall on fallow ground and they grow and multiply a thousand fold. Who knows where some good thing you’ve done may result in things that you never dreamed of.”

He recalled a discussion when a local official defended development: “Pete, if you don’t grow, you die.” Seeger said that night he thought of a response: “Doesn’t it follow that the quicker you grow, the sooner you die?”

Asked what he thought of the sponsorship of the festival by Shell Oil Co., which is accused of disregarding human rights in its business dealings, Seeger said it was important to “talk with people we disagree with. That’s where music and dancing and good food comes in. These are what are going to save the human race.”

Wein, a longtime friend, said Seeger “never gives up hope that the world will be better place to live—and that sums him up.”

MAKE OBAMA DO IT. Amy Goodman, visiting Austin (4/29) on a tour promoting the paperback edition of her book, Standing Up to the Madness: Ordinary Heroes in Extraordinary Times, was asked what progressives can do about what they see as a lack of resolve by the Obama administration. She recalled the story Eleanor Roosevelt told of a meeting between her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and A. Phillip Randolph, the organizer of black Pullman sleeping-car porters. The president asked Randolph what he thought of the plight of Negro people and where the nation was headed. After Randolph laid out what needed to be done, FDR replied, “You know, Mr. Randolph, I’ve heard everything you’ve said tonight, and I couldn’t agree with you more. I agree with everything that you’ve said, including my capacity to be able to right many of these wrongs and to use my power and the bully pulpit. ... But I would ask one thing of you, Mr. Randolph, and that is go out and make me do it.”

That story was retold by Barack Obama at a campaign fundraiser in Montclair, N.J. more than a year ago, Goodman said. After recounting the Randolph story, Obama said he couldn’t do it alone, either. So he told his supporters, “Make me do it.”

Goodman added, “I think that’s the challenge.”

MAKE CONGRESS DO IT. Mike Lux, a progressive political consultant who worked two years in the Clinton White House as special assistant to the president for public liaison, and recently worked on the transition team for president-elect Obama, visited Austin (5/6) on tour promoting his book, Progressive Revolution: How the Best in American Came to Be. He also said progressive-minded folks need to organize to push Obama. “We need progressive media and blogs to keep the heat on in a major way,” he said, adding, “Even when you’re represented by liberal congress member, you need to keep pushing them.”

Lux, who co-founded the progressive blog OpenLeft.com, said progressives tend to be in control for short bursts of time—in the 1860s (back when the Republicans were the progressive party), when Lincoln not only held the Union together but also got the Homestead Act, the Land Grant Act that promoted state colleges, and an income tax to get the rich to pay for the Civil War; the 1900s, when many of the reforms of the Populist movement were enacted, including breakup of the corporate trusts; the 1930s, when New Deal reforms included unemployment compensation, Social Security and the Securities and Exchange Commission; the 1960s, when Democrats outlawed segregation, enacted Medicaid, Medicare, Head Start, legal services for the poor and took the first steps toward women’s rights.

Now when people say Obama should be careful and go slow, he replies, “When you’ve got the window open for change, you should open it wider.”

Bill Clinton lost a lot of his momentum when he lost his bid for health care reform, said Lux, who was in the White House at that time. “The lesson for me in history is that the first big thing opens the door. If you lose the first big battle, it makes it more difficult for everything else. Once we lost on health care, the Democrats became very cautious,” and ever since then Dems have been limited by the “culture of caution.”

Lux thinks the Obama administration is smart tactically in staying focused on health reform. When Obama won the battle over putting health care in the budget, where conservatives can’t stop it with a filibuster, it was a sign that health reform has momentum. “Obama has said I’m going to pass it this year, come hell or high water,” Lux said, and if necessary he’ll do it with 51 votes in the Senate. But we need to make sure he has those 51 votes.

Lux also believes that if a bank is too big to fail, it also is too big to exist. Unfortunately, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, director of the president’s National Economic Council, favor resuscitation of the banks instead of restructuring the nation’s financial systems. Apparently the window isn’t that wide open.

‘JUSTICE’ TO ENFORCE ANTITRUST LAW. After eight years of the feds looking the other way under George W. Bush, President Obama’s top antitrust official announced plans to restore an aggressive enforcement policy against corporations that use their market dominance to elbow out competitors or to keep them from gaining market share. The new enforcement policy would reverse the Bush administration’s approach, which strongly favored defendants against antitrust claims. It would restore a policy that led to the landmark antitrust lawsuits against Microsoft and Intel in the 1990s, the New York Times reported.

During the Bush administration, the Justice Department did not file a single case against a dominant firm for violating the antimonopoly law. The Justice Department in 2008 issued a report that formalized the practices of the Bush administration in determining whether certain types of conduct by large companies would harm competition. In a rare split with the Justice, three of the four commissioners at the Federal Trade Commission denounced the guidelines, calling them “a blueprint for radically weakened enforcement” against anticompetitive practices.

CAR DEALERS QUESTION CUTS. Obama’s auto task force appears to be intent on reducing competition among car dealers as it demands drastic cuts as part of the GM and Chrysler restructuring. GM plans to close 2,600 of its 6,246 US dealers while Chrysler has not said how many of its 3,188 US dealers it wants to shut down. US automakers complain that large dealer networks foster price infighting among retailers serving the same market, the Wall Street Journal noted (5/11). Foreign car makers such as Toyota Motor Co. have more closely controlled the growth of their US networks, giving dealers larger and thus potentially more profitable territories. How that helps the automakers—or car buyers—is questionable. The National Automobile Dealers Association has created an ad campaign questioning why the task force, apparently influenced by Wall Street, is demanding a cut in local dealers. “It makes no sense for an automaker to radically cut its dealer network,” says John McEleney, NADA chairman and a GM, Toyota and Hyundai dealer in Iowa. “Manufacturers need revenue, and the only way to get it is to sell more cars to dealers. In other words, dealers equal revenue for their manufacturers. A radical reduction of dealers would put 150,000 Main Street Americans out of work and cut state and local government auto sales tax revenue by millions of dollars.”

BUS TOUR SPOTLIGHTS AUTOMOTIVE SUPPORT JOBS. The automotive crisis goes deeper than auto companies and assembly workers in the Detroit area. “Reducing US auto manufacturing drives down overall employment, from the people who make auto catalogs and shipping boxes to workers making glass for windshields, rubber for tires and other materials,” said Leo W. Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers and one of the elected officials, labor and manufacturing leaders who embarked on a “Keep It Made in America” bus tour 5/11-19. More than 7.2 mln paychecks are dependent on US autos, including health care, education, service, retail and other jobs. The tour, sponsored by the Alliance for American Manufacturing, the Mayors and Municipalities Automotive Coalition and the United Steelworkers visited 34 cities in 11 states to publicize the impact of the automotive supply chain in communities. See americanmanufacturing.org.

US ALSO JAILS JOURNOS. The good news is that an Iranian appeals court (5/11) reduced the sentence of Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi on a charge of spying and ordered her immediate release from prison. Glenn Greenwald noted at Salon.com that she was convicted of “extremely dubious charges” and the release was likely a positive byproduct of the change in tone toward Iran and the Muslim world by the Obama administration. But Greenwald also noted that the US has been imprisoning journalists without charges as part of its “war on terror,” with little objection from America’s journalists.

Greenwald noted that the US seized Al Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj in Afghanistan in 2001 and held him for six years in Guantanamo with no trial of any kind, and spent most of that time interrogating him not about terrorism, but about the TV network he worked for. In Iraq, US troops imprisoned Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein for almost two years with no charges of any kind. The Committee to Protect Journalists (cpj.org)—which led the effort to free Saberi—counted dozens of journalists—mostly Iraqis—detained by US troops, including at least eight cases of Iraqi journalists held by US forces for weeks or months without charge or conviction. In one highly publicized case, Abdul Ameer Younis Hussein, a freelance cameraman working for CBS, was detained after being wounded by US military fire as he filmed clashes in Mosul in northern Iraq on 4/5/05. In April 2006, a year after his arrest, Hussein was freed by an Iraqi criminal court, citing a lack of evidence. The US force continues to imprison Ibrahim Jassam, a freelance photographer for Reuters, even though an Iraqi court last December found that there was no evidence to justify his detention and ordered him released.

CAN WE AFFORD OBAMA’S GAMBLE? Conservatives cited the 5/7 Treasury auction of $14 bln worth of 30-year bonds (as rates rose to 4.3%) as proof that President Obama’s deficit spending will be a long-term disaster. But John Leonard noted at Salon.com (5/12) that Treasury had no problem selling $60 bln worth of three-month and six-month bills on 5/11. “Yields actually went down, a sign of investor demand. Of course, that’s exactly how you would expect it to be during troubled times. The safest place you can put your money right now is in extremely short-term US Treasury bonds. They won’t gain you much in the way of return, but that, literally, is the price you pay. The longer the time frame, however, the more worried investors are about inflation and likely higher interest rates in the future.”

Leonard admitted that “It strains credulity to see how the US can continue to borrow so many billions without consequence. ... But left out of the analysis is what would happen if the Obama administration had chosen to impose a fiscal austerity regime at the current juncture. Suppose the new administration had decided not to stimulate the economy, and abandoned any effort to spur development of renewable energy, or fix the healthcare system? Our long-term predicament could be much, much worse. ... Imagine if were looking at 20% unemployment, instead of 10%. Government revenues would be greatly reduced, while social welfare spending would inevitably be much higher. The Obama bet is that by investing now, we will save later. It’s a hell of a gamble, but not necessarily reckless or spendthrift. It might just be prudent.”

INSOLVENCY ALARMS. The annual reports of the Social Security and Medicare boards of trustees were published 5/12, with new projections for insolvency. Medicare runs out of money in 2017, two years earlier than last year’s report anticipated. Social Security exhausts current reserves in 2037, four years earlier than predicted in last year’s report (though tax income would continue to pay 75% of scheduled benefits through 2083. But Ezra Klein noted at Prospect.org (5/12) these estimates change year-to-year. “The exact year might make the headlines, but it’s the least reliable piece of the report,” he wrote.

What won’t make it into most stories, he noted, is the relative severity of the problems. Of course, Social Security still looks much better than most private pension plans after the bumpy ride of the past year. And the trustees note, “Social Security could be brought into actuarial balance over the next 75 years with changes equivalent to an immediate 16% increase in the payroll tax (from a rate of 12.4% to 14.4%) or an immediate reduction in benefits of 13% or some combination of the two.” The trustees don’t bring up the other cure: Congress could lift the limit on taxable income to make up the difference.

Klein noted that the fix for Medicare is more brutal. “The Medicare Report shows that the [Hospital Insurance] Trust Fund could be brought into actuarial balance over the next 75 years by changes equivalent to an immediate 134% increase in the payroll tax (from a rate of 2.9% to 6.78%), or an immediate 53% reduction in program outlays, or some combination of the two.” The trustees don’t bring up the other cure: Expand Medicare to cover all Americans; Medicare already covers the most expensive patients so the costs could be spread among the entire populace.

CROSSING THE LINE? Republicans and some mainstream mediacrats complained that Wanda Sykes crossed a line at the White House Correspondent's Association Dinner (5/9) when she noted that Rush Limbaugh has said he wants Obama to fail. "He just wants the country to fail. To me that's treason," she said. "He's not saying anything different than what Osama Bin Laden is saying. You might want to look into this, sir, because I think Rush Limbaugh was the 20th hijacker but he was just so strung out on Oxycontin he missed his flight." After groaning, Sykes asked, "Too much?"

But, among other things, Sykes did not suggest that conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh is supported by Hamas, and that Islamists are constantly issuing Limbaugh talking points. She did not joke about terrorists supporting conservatives in general, suggesting that recent violent events in Iraq are attempts by terrorists to swing the upcoming midterm elections in favor of Republicans. She did not joke that Limbaugh was a racist who doesn't want black people to "escap[e] the underclass." She did not accuse him of being responsible for killing "a million babies a year," nor did she air her friend's theory that Limbaugh himself was a terrorist attack, a followup to 9/11. Neither did she say that if conservatives kept apologizing to Limbaugh, they'd eventually contract "anal poisoning." She didn't wonder when Republicans would finally stop "bending over and grabbing their ankles" for Limbaugh, nor did she conclude that Limbaugh was just a "bad guy."

No, as Adam Serwer of Prospect.org noted (5/11), "Wanda Sykes didn't say any of these things. These are things Rush Limbaugh has said about Obama or other Democrats in the past year, the kind of statements few reporters found offensive enough to write about, despite the fact that most of them were said with the utmost seriousness. And while Sykes is a mere comedian whose influence on the Democratic Party is negligible, Limbaugh's influence in the party is so great that Republican leaders can't even criticize him without having to issue apologies after the fact."


RURALS NEED PUBLIC HEALTH PLAN. The Center for Rural Affairs (cfra.org) reported in April that rural residents are twice as likely to be underinsured as urban residents. In its report, "The Causes and Consequences of the Rural Uninsured and Underinsured," the center found that 8% of the general population depends on individual policies with reduced benefits and high deductibles, but 33% of farmers and ranchers rely on such policies; approximately 50% of rural employees work for small businesses, compared to 37% of urban employees; and employees of small businesses are twice as likely to have no insurance. In the last 40 years, the number of self-employed workers in rural areas has grown by over 240%. With an economy dominated by small businesses and self-employment, rural people are generally less insured, more underinsured and more dependent on the individual insurance market. The center supports universal, continuous and affordable health care that includes self-employed individuals and small businesses, provides appropriate services for an aging population, strengthen public health care such as children's health insurance, Medicare and Medicaid, and improves the rural health infrastructure. Congress and the White House need to address these challenges as they debate health care reform.

BAD GUYS ON THE RUN. It’s good news that Sallie Mae, the largest issuer of student loans, is proposing to accept a plan in which the government is the sole issuer of government-guaranteed loans. The Obama administration proposed to eliminate subsidies to lenders in the $85-bln-a-year student loan industry. Sallie Mae said it is willing to go along if it is given the opportunity to originate the loans, picking up fees in the process.

The other good news is the health-care industry’s proposal, announced 5/11, to curtail cost growth by 1.5 percentage points a year. It is unlikely that the commitments will be binding, but the fact that industry executives would suggest cost savings is an enormous concession. “The industry is talking this way because they are scared to death at the prospect of having a Medicare type public plan, which will both provide competition for private insurers and create an effective mechanism to constrain the fees charged by health care providers. As many have argued, the public plan is a real game changer,” he wrote at TPMMuckraker.com (5/11). But Baker added that there is no reason to accept either compromise. “Now is not the time for compromises. We must keep the pressure on. It is showing results.”

KEEP PRESSURE ON HEALTH INSURERS? The only troubling thing about President Obama’s statement concerning health care reform, Robert Reich wrote at Salon.com (5/11), was what Obama did not say: “that he wanted any health plan that emerges from Congress to include a public insurance option for Americans who do not want to buy private insurance. But without this option, there will be no pressure on private insurers to adopt all the other reforms to control costs or give all Americans access to affordable care.

“Every other reform proposal announced to date — electronic medical records, comparative effectiveness research, prevention of chronic disease, payments for services rather than for outcomes, and so on — has been talked about for years. The reason none have been adopted is health providers and insurers can make more money without them. Only with a government plan that competes with private insurers, and offers Americans lower costs if the providers and insurers fail to reform themselves, will the system be genuinely reformed.

“Hopefully, the President’s failure to mention a public insurance option today was not intended to signal to Congress that the White House is no longer especially interested in it. The Administration should quickly inform policymakers how important this option is as a spur to real change.”

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2009

Home Page

Subscribe to The Progressive Populist

Copyright © 2009 The Progressive Populist.