Monday, February 28, 2005

Why is the President Punishing Drug Users for Offences He Has Also Been Linked to?

Published on Sunday. February 27, 2005 by the Toronto Star
Bush Dodges as Addicts Rot in Jail
Why is the President Punishing Drug Users for Offences He Has Also Been Linked to?

by Joe Conason
On the audiotapes of George W. Bush recorded secretly by his erstwhile confidant Douglas Wead in 1999, the future president revealed how much he feared candid discussion of his personal use of marijuana and cocaine. As quoted in The New York Times, Bush vowed that no matter what rumours and facts circulated about what he did or might have done, he would doggedly decline to answer forthrightly.

His natural urge to protect his privacy evokes sympathy, however quaint his expectations might be at this point in our political history. But in justifying his refusal to talk about his foolish youth, he appealed to a higher purpose. "I wouldn't answer the marijuana questions," he told Wead. "You know why? Because I don't want some little kid doing what I tried."

For many American parents of a certain age, that self-serving yet poignant response must strike an empathetic chord. Concern that children will mimic parental misbehaviour is universal, and so is the impulse to conceal embarrassing truths. Bush rightly worries that children imitate adult models in the belief that they, too, can escape the consequences.

When Bush uttered those words, he was in his second term as governor of Texas and on his way to the White House. After all, if he could drink too much, smoke those forbidden herbs and perhaps even snort illegal powders and nevertheless become a successful politician, then "some little kid" might reasonably assume he or she could sin likewise without undue risk.

Any such assumption would be terribly mistaken, of course, unless the kid happened to belong to a wealthy and well-connected family like the Bush clan.

Prisons and jails across America are crowded with non-violent drug offenders whose lives have been ruined — and whose families have been damaged or destroyed — by the same punitive legal system that never touched young "Georgie," except to issue him a drunk-driving summons.

The poor and the black are incarcerated for using pot and coke, while the rich and the white lie to their kids (and occasionally to the voters) about those same transgressions.

Certainly that was how the justice system worked when Bush and Wead had their candid chats. The Texas politician couldn't reassure his friend that he hadn't used cocaine, let alone marijuana, but as governor he was imprisoning young people unlucky enough to be arrested in possession of those narcotics, often for draconian mandatory-minimum sentences. He always cherished his image as a tough, swaggering, law-and-order politician who didn't hesitate to imprison teenagers. But that isn't what happens to people from good families.

His niece Noelle Bush went through a drug-rehab program and was released two years ago. His friend Rush Limbaugh went through rehab and has returned to berating the less fortunate on the radio, without doing one day of time.

The lopsided cruelty has only escalated since Bush entered the White House. Federal agents have cracked down on medical users of marijuana, depriving them of a substance that eases their sickness and keeps them alive.

The human and economic costs of the drug war continue to swell. So burdensome are those costs that many conservatives, including such Bush tutors as former secretary of state George Shultz, have publicly pleaded for saner policies.

Despite his claims to be a "compassionate conservative," Bush has ignored those pleas. He seems to feel that if he overcame his substance-abuse problem, then nobody else really has an excuse.

No reporter ever asked the Texas governor why all those other people deserved to serve five or 10 or 20 years in prison, when their crimes were no different from what everyone knew he had done, whether he admitted it or not.

No reporter will ask the president that question today, either, although it is just as pertinent in light of his revealing conversations with Wead.

Indeed, Bush not only avoided public responsibility for his own past mistakes but found a clever way to turn those wayward years to political advantage. He brandishes his late return to sobriety as a symbol of his Christian faith.

It is hard to tell what Bush learned in his recovery from sin, except that other people got caught and he didn't.

That would be enough to make anybody smirk.

Joe Conason is the author of The Hunting of the President:The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Copyright Toronto Star Newspapers Limited


EPI: The Lukewarm 2004 Labor Market: Despite Some Signs of Improvement, Wages Fell, Job Growth Lagged, and Unemployment Spells Remained Long

From the Economic Policy Institute:

"The labor market showed some signs of improvement in 2004; most notable in this regard the job growth that occurred in every month of the year. This was the first year of consistent job growth since 2000, signaling the end of the jobless recovery. The unemployment rate also showed improvement, falling from an average of 6.0 percent in 2003 to an average of 5.5 percent for last year. On the other hand, several other indicators and comparisons depict a labor market that remains distinctly weak."

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Public Policy, Economic Inequality and Poverty: The US in Comparative Perspective

A long, interesting report written last year by Timothy Smedding at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Public Policy. The conclusion of his research is:

Do American policies exacerbate or ameliorate inequality and poverty? That is the question we began this paper with. We have found that the United States has the highest level of inequality amongst the rich nations of the world. Our direct income transfer polices do less to redistribute overall and to lower income persons than do the polices in other nations. America began the last
quarter of the 20th century with higher inequality than in any other nation and our inequality increased by more than in any other nation over this period, through expansion and contraction of the economy.

The effects of other direct and indirect policies are harder to nail down, but they also affect well being in unequal ways. We have all but eliminated welfare in America and in so doing have turned the welfare poor into the working poor. But poverty rates did not go down along with welfare rolls. Instead we have the hardest working low income single parents, who also have the highest poverty rates in the rich world. While market forces have increased inequality in most
nations we examine, policy can make a difference.

Seven years ago British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced his government's pledge to end child poverty. Since then the child poverty rate in Britain has shrunk―almost in half―from 25 to 13 percent on an absolute basis (Hills and Sutherland, 2004). They did it by enacting policies that help low-income families. Blair reformed the British tax system, offering a Working Tax Credit (similar to the United States EITC) to parents working for 16 or more hours a week. And they offered an additional tax credit to pay for up to 70 per cent of childcare costs, plus other work related benefits (including paid family leave).

In the US, on the other hand, President Bush has made no such pledge. In fact, the number of poor children in the United States has actually increased under Bush's watch. The lesson is clear—if one decides to make poverty or inequality an active policy goal they can make a difference. We have
more inequality and poverty than other nations because we choose to have more. But why do we make these choices?

While the other papers and authors at this symposium are better qualified than I to discuss the relationship between inequality and politics, inequality itself―especially the economic distance from the rich the middle―may be closely related to the levels and patterns of redistribution that we find in the United States compared to other nations. In a recent paper (Schwabish, Smeeding, and
Osberg 2003) we argue that as the “rich” become more distant from the middle and lower classes, they find it easier to opt out of tax financial public redistribution programs and to either self insure or to buy substitutes in the private market. The implication is, therefore, that “two income” households with two highly educated parents have little need for redistributive cash and near cash social benefits because they are very unlikely to directly benefit from such transfer programs. High
income parents can also find better schools or buy private schooling if the public schools do not measure up. They have good employer health insurance so the need for better public insurance is not a relevant consideration (except perhaps for Medicare). The conclusion is that higher economic
inequality produces lower levels of those publicly shared goods which foster greater equality of opportunity and greater upward mobility: income insurance, equal educational opportunity, and more equal access to high quality health care.

Having greater numbers of rich in a nation does not lead to additional redistribution because the lower and middle classes do not have the political power, voice and access to legitimize these claims. Dissimilarities in the institutions that represent social and economic rights in the political arena may well determine redistributive government spending. Our analyses suggests that ideology and efficacy may both matter. Ideology—in the sense of national understanding of the meaning of “fairness,” altruism and basic human rights—may play a crucial independent role in defining the acceptable domains of inequality. But efficacy in the ways in which social institutions and political parties can influence government, is likely to be crucial in understanding whether demands are made of the political system to reach these “fairness” objectives.

The many factors that effect public social expenditures are complex and intertwined.
Certainly, social values and institutions in the United States differ from those found in other nations, and our belief in the market system is much more central and critical to social outcomes than in other advanced nations. Yet even within these beliefs, it seems clear that we do not possess the social institutions or political movements which might bring about greater levels of redistribution, even for those who are more clearly deserving because of their work effort or other factors. In the end, it is clear that the high level of market driven economic inequality which we
tolerate is in large part a determinant of the relatively poor social outcomes and social policy outcomes which we observe.

The Crime of War: From Nuremberg to Fallujah

Absolutely a must-read from ZMAG.

Friday, February 11, 2005

New EPI report: Labor standards, human capital and economic development

Be sure to check out this new working paper from the Economic Policy Institute published this month.