Is a Good Enough Stimulus Good Enough?

Seems like the 787 billion dollar American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 stimulus package Congress has passed and sent to the President’s desk is just good enough. Though notable for its size, it doesn’t advance bold initiatives that could define Obama’s presidency, nor does it grapple with big, confounding issues like universal health care. It’s incremental rather than transformational. But it’s good enough to mind-shift us into a more optimistic view of the short term economy and to offer real help to many hurt by the downturn.

(If you want a quick look at how we’re going to spend 787 billion, see this chart. That sounds like “real money“, but it’s amazing how quickly it goes when you break it down–well, incrementally. For a more detailed summary, the Center for Law and Social Policy provides descriptions and tables with estimated state-by-state impacts of key provisions. Read that full report here.)

Though many economists say the package isn’t big enough, and feminists wonder whether it does enough to build the human infrastructure, Republicans are predictably squealing it’s too big and too diffuse. This despite all the effort Obama went to to engage and appease his Republican colleagues. I thought by now he would have learned the hooker principle (get paid first) and not have expended so much political capital trying to win over those who want only to create campaign issues with which to wrest back Congressional seats in 2010 and take the White House away from him in 2012. (Remember Newt and the Contract on America in 1994?)

I mean, caving to objections over a simple provision to reduce bureaucracy for states wanting to expand their Medicaid family planning programs was simply gratuitous political theater with a high ticket price. He has now framed birth control as “controversial”, despite its approval and usage by over 90% of Americans, and this will come back to haunt him when women’s groups start pushing him to deliver on promised family planning legislation such as the Prevention First Act.

But then, where were the women’s groups who should have stopped this silliness in the first place? They were with everyone else on the progressive to middle political scale, cutting Obama the slack a new president deserves, especially during crisis times.

On the plus side for Obama, perceptions about a leader’s prowess have as much to do with timing and the cushion of good will with which he/she is surrounded upon ascending to office as with actual performance. He’s riding high in the polls, and George Bush left things so bad that, with the exception of the Limbaugh-like loyalists, almost everyone is grateful for any forward movement.

Surely, this stimulus package is an important step forward, and it was accomplished with alacrity during the dawning days of the new administration. It shores up, pumps up, cheers up. It’s going to give relief to many low-and moderate-income families and help states avert drastic shortfalls in their budgets while saving major institutions. These are not small matters.

But courageous leadership isn’t just incremental. The New Deal was transformational. It changed government structure while building national infrastructure. Obama was swept into office in large part because voters saw him as a visionary who could transform and take the nation to qualitatively greater heights.

So let us give great credit to him for leading Congress and public opinion to embrace the current economic stimulus. That’s good enough for starters.

But onward now to universal health care, world class education, green and clean energy self-sufficiency, global leadership in women’s equality and human rights, and technological and scientific innovation that will fuel the next economic boom.

Warped Priorities

The headline and precis on the e-mail I received just now punches me in the face:

FY09 STATE BUDGET CUTS FORCE ASU TO CAP ENROLLMENT,
FRESHMAN APPLICATIONS CLOSE MARCH 1, FIVE MONTHS EARLY

Budget cuts scale Poly and West campuses down to one college each;
Four dozen academic programs to be closed

Additional state budget cuts in FY10 could result in closing two entire campuses

I’m in Arizona for a few weeks, teaching a short course in “Women, Power, and Politics” at Arizona State University. Though this is not a regular gig for me and I have joked that I’m earning almost enough after taxes to pay for our car rental while we are here, I feel intimately involved–actually sick at my stomach–over the short-sighted budget priorities of the right-wing dominated state legislature and the new Republican Governor Jan Brewer, who took over after the state’s popular Democratic Governor and chief resister of such retrograde policies, Janet Napolitano, flew the coop to Washington to become Secretary of Homeland Security.

These cuts come on top of the university announcing last week that they would furlough all staff, top to bottom, for two weeks. I have to show I’m working nine fewer hours than my original commitment, and my princessly salary will be cut accordingly. This is not going to change my lifestyle much. But I think of what it means to people dependent on the university for their fulltime compensation–those who still have jobs that is. More than 550 positions, including 200 faculty, have been eliminated. Further, the state’s whacking back of educational funding extends to K-12 public schools also–and Arizona was already near the bottom of the 50-state heap in education funding.

Some cuts were inevitable in almost every state service and institution in this tough economy. It’s happening everywhere and Arizona has been particularly hard-hit by the mortgage crisis. But this is worse than slash and burn. It’s eating the seed corn that could feed future economic growth.

Just over a week ago, David Leonhardt had written this in the New York Times Magazine, citing a research by labor economists, Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz in their book, The Race Between Education and Technology:

Goldin’s and Katz’s thesis is that the 20th century was the American century in large part because this country led the world in education. The last 30 years, when educational gains slowed markedly, have been years of slower growth and rising inequality.

Their argument happens to be supported by a rich body of economic literature that didn’t even make it into the book. More-educated people are healthier, live longer and, of course, make more money. Countries that educate more of their citizens tend to grow faster than similar countries that do not. The same is true of states and regions within this country. Crucially, the income gains tend to come after the education gains. What distinguishes thriving Boston from the other struggling cities of New England? Part of the answer is the relative share of children who graduate from college. The two most affluent immigrant groups in modern America — Asian-Americans and Jews — are also the most educated. In recent decades, as the educational attainment of men has stagnated, so have their wages. The median male worker is roughly as educated as he was 30 years ago and makes roughly the same in hourly pay. The median female worker is far more educated than she was 30 years ago and makes 30 percent more than she did then.

There really is no mystery about why education would be the lifeblood of economic growth. On the most basic level, education helps people figure out how to make objects and accomplish tasks more efficiently. It allows companies to make complex products that the rest of the world wants to buy and thus creates high-wage jobs. Education may not be as tangible as green jobs. But it helps a society leverage every other investment it makes, be it in medicine, transportation or alternative energy. Education — educating more people and educating them better — appears to be the best single bet that a society can make.

ASU’s original campus and hub is located in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe, but currently boasts four campuses collectively serving over 64,000 students in the metro area, and a vision of creating the “New American University”. Apparently not just yet.

Let’s hope that some combination of incentives from Obama’s stimulus package and citizen outrage at the polls in 2010 will reverse these warped decisions and bring common sense to funding priorities.

Best of Weeks, Not So Best of Weeks

The best: the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the first bill signed into law by President Barack Obama. This photo says, better than a thousand words, the joy of this step forward for gender equality in compensation. That’s Lilly, the blonde in the middle (I won’t identify by her red jacket because it seems Senators Barbara Mikulski and Olympia Snowe and Rep.Eleanor Holmes Norton also got the memo).

Am I alone in noting the contrast between this photo, with its diverse group of people and the photo of old white men surrounding George Bush when he signed the abortion ban bill? Quite a sea change. Breathe out now. Guess which one of the signings I was invited to, and which one not.

But on to the not so best, for some happenings this past week were more like Washington as usual:

*The beached whale alarms bellowed by the Republican Right, shocked (!) that the Medicaid expansion provision of Obama’s stimulus package includes bureaucratic relief so states can, if they choose, extend preventive family planning health care to women who are above the poverty line but low income and uninsured. Well, apparently, the Democrats–the men at least–aren’t any more comfortable with the topic.

*The Democratic president’s lightening-swift and utterly gratuitous capitulation to those politically beached bloviators. As if they hadn’t known when they put the family planning extension into the stimulus package that it would be a red flag. Did they perhaps intend it as bait to draw the sting away from other vulnerable provisions? But if so, why pray tell did they have to choose the one aspect of the plan that had “woman” written on it?

*The media pundits making jokes when they had to say the words “stimulus” and “contraception”, because, well, isn’t sex always amusing? As in, not a serious issue for legislators to consider? Suddenly shy of controversy, Chris Matthews posited that family planning is a private matter, not for the government to consider. Where was his dismay these last eight years when the anti-choice right was plunging straight into Americans’ “private” reproductive decisions?

*Disputes within the women’s movement and family planning faithful. “Maybe this really doesn’t belong in the stimulus plan even though it is important.” “Maybe we don’t want to put forth the argument that family planning saves $4 for every $1 spent on health and welfare funding alone; it sounds too elitist.” Or, “Maybe we need to duck, withdraw the provision and quietly fight this battle behind the scenes so it doesn’t make news and stir up the opposition. As if the opposition wouldn’t notice. Meanwhile, Beltway veterans will say, we need Obama for so many other things. He’s removed the Global Gag Rule already. He issued an eloquent tribute to Roe v Wade. And he supports the Prevention First Act. What else do you want, they ask.

Maybe the best of next week will be the Prevention First Act, with (my fantasy) the addition of the Medicaid waiver provision that got cut out of the stumulus package. After all, Obama says family planning funding is a high priority for him, and TPM reports sources indicated to them that a bill could start moving very soon.