Friday, December 23, 2011

The first congressional district, represented by Bob Brady, has the most dramatic change in racial composition of any of the state's 19 congressional

I had promised myself I’d stay away from political blogging during the holiday season-–but there’s one recent development I just can’t refrain from writing about. This was one of the reasons I retired—more time for politics. So here goes: my last political post until after Jan. 1.

Thanks to Azavea, the web-based software design firm that developed the Redistricting the Nation project, we now have the demographics of the old and new Pennsylvania congressional districts.

The first congressional district, represented by Bob Brady, has the most dramatic change in racial composition of any of the state's 19 congressional districts. Brady's district is currently 31.8% White and 48.0% black. His new district will be 46.9% white and 35.5% black. (The Asian and Latino percentages have changed very little.)

Across the state, most of the changes in racial composition were relatively small—generally no more than a few percentage points. The only other district which had significant change was the 14th congressional district, which contains the entire city of Pittsburgh. In the 14th, the percentage of white voters was 69.4% % in the old district, 77.37% in the new; the percentage of black voters was 24.5% in the old district, 16.53% in the new. The shift in racial composition in the 14th is not as dramatic as in the first congressional district and it does not change the racial dynamics of the race. The 14th district was and remains a district which favors the election of a white candidate. The first district has gone from a district which was very favorable terrain for a black candidate to one in which a black candidate would be significantly less competitive.

News reports suggested that Brady may have had something to do with this. Cris Brennan reported in the Daily News on 8/20/11:

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, chairman of the Democratic City Committee in Philadelphia, says that one hot rumor circulating in Harrisburg about his 1st Congressional District is way off the mark.

The rumor: Brady offers a weak Democratic candidate for a special election for the state House's 169th District in Northeast Philly if the Republicans controlling the General Assembly and redistricting redraw his district in a fashion he favors…

Republican and Democratic sources in Harrisburg confirm that the rumor about Brady seeking a deal is swirling.

One senior Democratic source put it this way: "Every House Democratic leader is extremely frustrated that you have the leader of the Philadelphia Democratic Party attempting to sell out a Democratic seat just to help himself."

Doron Taussig in the "It's our Money Blog" reported on 12/19/11:

John Micek, Capitolwire reports on U.S.Rep. Bob Brady’s efforts to get the state’s current congressional redistricting plan passed. The report says Brady got State Sen. Tina Tartaglione to cast a key vote to get the new map out of committee, and that the congressman is now trying to drum up support for the plan among Philly’s state House delegation.

Brady is doing this, Capitolwire says, in spite of the fact that the congressional redistricting plan “masses the largest number of urban Democratic voters into the smallest number of districts.”

Why would Brady do such a thing? Isn’t he Mr. Democrat? Maybe, but the proposed map isn’t nearly as bad for Brady as it is for Democrats generally: “it let(s) him shoot up the Delaware River to capture more capture more white Democrats, giving him some protection against future black primary challengers.”

Did the Democratic Party Chair push for something so contrary to the interests of his party just to insure that he had a district with more white voters? Most political folks I know think Brady could have been beaten by a well-known, well-funded black challenger in the old district with 48.0% black voters. It will be significantly more difficult with 35.5% black voters. Brady now has a district which will make it a lot harder for an African-American challenger for the foreseeable future, as the new boundaries are good for 10 years.

Could a shift in the racial demographics this dramatic (compared to other districts) be in violation of the voting rights act? The demographic shift in the first congressional district certainly decreases the likelihood of another African-American congressional representative in Pennsylvania. Although more voters are crossing racial and ethnic lines in voting—particularly in high profile races like the presidency and governorships—voters are much more likely to vote for someone who looks like them in down ballot races.

I expected that the Republicans would use their control of the redistricting process to gerrymander their way to increased representation. I did not expect the Chair of the Philadelphia Democratic Party to work with Republicans to guarantee himself a district which would be less competitive for an African-American challenger. Of course, given that redistricting is not an open, transparent process, we well never know for certain if this was the case. There is no smoking gun. But there sure is evidence pointing in that direction.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Nostalgia for the Light: worth all the money I’ve wasted on a largely unused Netflix subscription.

I thought when I retired I would actually use my netflix subscription instead of wasting money every month on a video rental service I never used. Well, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. A netflix film can still be around the house for weeks before I get around to it and the little Roku box I bought for streaming video has been used exactly once. Most nights I would just rather read.

But there are some things film can do that a book cannot and thanks to Netflix I have seen some amazing films from around the world. A visually breathtaking and deeply moving film I stumbled on last week was Patricio Guzman’s Nostalgia for the Light. I’ve watched all of Guzman’s documentary films about Chile. I was inChile in 1972, a year before the brutal coup which destroyed Salvador Allende’s non-violent democratic revolution. Chile has had a hold on my imagination ever since— although my return trip in 2006 was something of a disappointment.

Guzman is still haunted by the horrors of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Set in the Atacama Desert where the dry air creates ideal conditions for astronomers, the film works on 2 tracks —the astronomers who describe themselves as archaeologists searching for the past in distant galaxies and the mothers of Pinochet’s victims also searching for the past in the Atacama, site of one of Pinochet’s concentration camps. The women wander the desert with shovels searching for the remains of their children. One says she wishes the gigantic telescopes looming in the desert landscape could also look deep into the earth and find her son.

The two strands merge in a young woman whose parents were killed by Pinochet and who now studies astronomy. She finds consolation in the stars; although her sorrow is not diminished, there is a measure of peace in seeing her personal tragedy in a larger perspective.

The shots of distance galaxies were astonishing and for the first time in my life, I thought maybe I would like one of those flat screen TV’s. (Rick and I are the only people we know who have yet to succumb to the lure of a giant flat screen TV.) Nostalgia for the Light was worth all the money I’ve wasted on a largely unused Netflix subscription.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Social Security Disability Benefits:No subsitute for Medicare!

I received some very thoughtful comments about my post, Raising the Retirement Age: Bad for the Old, Disastrous for the Young. Carol and Nance raised points I should have included in my post:

From Nance:
"I have seen so many teachers, social workers and nurses who are exhausted by the emotional demands of their jobs..." Count me among these. I loved my private psychotherapy practice, but there came a time when arthritis made long hours in the chair impossible and the long, slow accumulation of residue from years of vicariously experienced traumas had begun to declare itself.

When I retired, it was time. I was turning 60 in a job most folks would say you could do into your eighties. When I think of returning to it, I feel sick.

Everyone I've ever talked to who is past sixty has begun struggling with notable physical decline in some form and longs for the day they can change gears to meet their own physical needs.

From Carol:
I loved the column, but you should have mentioned that in our post-60's, health problems like diabetes, Parkinson's, cancer, heart disease, etc. tend to kick in, so not only will older people working make it less likely for younger ones to get jobs -- but also it is inhumane for a society to expect people to continue working when they may be frail or battling serious illnesses.

The advocates of raising the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare usually counter that those older folks who are disabled can apply for Social Security Disability Benefits. I asked a couple of my friends who worked for organizations advocating for the elderly and they both said, “It’s not so easy.” Unlike Medicare, which we are automatically entitled to at age 65, and Social Security retirement benefits, for which we are automatically eligible (at a reduced rate, to be sure) at age 62, there is nothing automatic about Social Security disability benefits. To qualify, applicants must be severely disabled, and even then there is a very high rate of rejection; getting approval takes forever. The arthritis Nance described would not be sufficient to qualify.

An article in the latest issue of AARP Bulletin, Waiting for Social Security Disability confirms what my friends said:

About 60 percent of cases are initially rejected. Applicants can ask for review by an administrative law judge, hire an attorney and wait months for a hearing… By last fall, 840,000 initial applications were pending.

Part of the problem is the sour economy. Applications have soared since late 2007 as workers with disabilities lost jobs and couldn't find new employment. At the same time, more boomers — many of them unable to find jobs — have applied for disability benefits.

All told, about 8.5 million workers and about 2 million adult children, widows and widowers were receiving disability benefits as of August. The average age of a disabled worker in the program now is 53. No one gets rich from the program: The average monthly benefit is $1,070.20.

Social Security Disability can not be counted on as a fallback for the infirm elderly if the eligibility age for Medicare and Social Security are raised. The idea that people who are not doing heavy physical work should be able to work well into their late 60’s and 70’s is cruel for all the reasons Nance stated. We can’t let this happen.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Raising the Retirement Age: Bad for the Old, Disastrous for the Young

It almost seems as if there’s a conspiracy to normalize the idea of working longer. Every time I pick up a newspaper, there’s another article about how we all have to work until we drop. Rather than dwelling on the familiar argument we just can’t afford to fund Social Security and Medicare, Edward Glaeser in his recent New York Times article,“Goodbye, Golden Years” puts a happy face on working well into old age.

Despite the current crisis in youth unemployment, Glaeser cheerfully tells us that“it’s counterintuitive, but the forever work life of older Americans may turn out to be a good thing for young workers.” He argues against what he calls the “lump of labor fallacy”-- that there are just a fixed number of jobs which the economy can generate:

If the economy needed only a lump of labor, the spectacular expansion of America’s female work force would have led to vast male unemployment. But it didn’t. In fact, the number of working women rose by 87 percent in the 25 years between 1975 and 2000, during which time total male employment also increased, by 41 percent.

However, the entry of women into the labor force occurred during a time of economic expansion (Yes, we had a recession in the early 80’s, but the 90’s were fueled by the dotcom boom.) Times are very different now as we remain mired in deep recession with increasing numbers of jobs out sourced to low-wage economies.

Not only does Glaeser downplay the grim reality of a jobs crisis, he paints a rosy picture of seniors starting businesses:
…by at least one measure, the elderly are often the most entrepreneurial Americans. Self-employment rises significantly with age. West Palm Beach, a retiree haven, has the highest self-employment rate of any metropolitan area in the nation… Self-employment is particularly natural for older Americans, because it provides so much more control over working hours and conditions. …Gradually, our image of 70-year-olds needs to change from Florida retirees to Florida entrepreneurs, who find ways to make a bit of cash doing something a bit more fun than their former work.

The message seems to be that, yes, we can cut their Social Security checks because they’ll be making extra cash with their small businesses. What makes Glaeser think that people who have not been entrepreneurs all their lives will suddenly develop this interest and talent in their golden years? How many retirees will be willing to gamble their nest eggs to start a business? The appetite for risk for most folks decreases with age. And finally most small businesses fail in their first year. Entrepreneurship among the elderly is not likely to compensate for decreased Social
Security checks and increased Medicare costs.

If our social policies force more elderly workers to remain in the work force longer, the greatest consequences will be felt by the young. Those young French men and women knew what they were doing when they were demonstrating in favor of retirement at 62. Don Peck’s article in the March 2010 Atlantic points out the consequences of long-term joblessness:
The effects of pervasive joblessness—on family, politics, society—take time to incubate, and they show themselves only slowly. But ultimately, they leave deep marks that endure long after boom times have returned. …If it persists much longer, this era of high joblessness will likely change the life course and character of a generation of young adults—and quite possibly those of the children behind them as well.

We need to spread the jobs around. Our society has been pushing workers to stay in the paid work force by gradually raising the age at which they are eligible for full retirement benefits and now policy makers are proposing raising the eligibility age for Medicare But either we pay more in Social Security and Medicare by encouraging older workers to leave the workforce or we’ll be paying more in unemployment compensation--not to mention the range of social ills resulting from a generation of young people who can’t find steady employment.

Of course, seniors who love their jobs and want to continue working should do so. But most do not, and it’s not just those with physically demanding jobs who long to retire. I have seen so many teachers, social workers and nurses who are exhausted by the emotional demands of their jobs but are hanging on for fear that there will be steep cuts in Social Security and Medicare. A social contract across the generations is sometimes discussed in terms of fewer entitlements for the old and more for the young. A better way to think about this is sharing what has become an increasingly scarce resource—a job and all that means for family and community stability.