Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Worried boomers turn 65: Die too soon or not soon enough? -- Dec. 29, 2010 column


Nearly every news story about the first boomers turning 65 contains sober warnings that boomers haven’t saved enough, and their golden years could be dross.

Not only will most boomers be unable to start a winery in retirement, as a TV ad suggests is our natural right, but also we may be forced to subsist on cat food in cold, dark rooms without Facebook. (Just kidding about the Facebook part. It’s not that bad.)

Still, according to the news, as about 10,000 baby boomers a day turn 65 a day in 2011, all boomers face the perplexing prospect of outliving their resources. There’s surely an element of schadenfreude, delight in the misfortunes of others, in these gloomy reports.

Instead of accentuating the negative, though, there’s a brighter way to look at the situation.

Today, one in four Americans are boomers. Older people vote, and boomers are a political force. The generation born between 1946 and 1964 isn’t a political monolith, given its size and diversity, but boomers do have clout. Politicians can’t continue indefinitely to ignore the problems facing Social Security and Medicare.

The likely fixes -- raising the early retirement age and higher taxes on benefits – may be unpalatable to the youngest workers, but it’s unlikely that politicians will slash benefits for those in or edging toward retirement.

Plus, here’s a surprising fact. Most boomers turning 65 are already collecting Social Security. About 42 percent of 62-year-olds opt for early retirement payments, even though it means, roughly, a 25 percent lower monthly check.

Interestingly, people end up receiving about the same amount in Social Security benefits whether they start collecting at 62 with reduced benefits, at 66 with full benefits or wait until they’re 70, when they collect higher payments, according to a study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. That’s because even though early retirees receive less per month, they live long enough to collect as much as those who start receiving larger payments at 70, Alicia H. Munnell, Alex Golub-Sass and Nadia Karamcheva found.

And, signing up for Social Security doesn’t mean people are retired. More than one-fifth of those 62 to 69 who were receiving Social Security between 2000 and 2009 described themselves as in the labor force, Census surveys report.

So, fellow boomers, let’s make some New Year’s resolutions. Let’s stop whining. Stop boring ourselves and everyone else with horrendous what-ifs. Let’s stop talking about our age. It can’t hurt, and it might help improve our mood. Many surveys find that boomers are in a grand funk as we start 2011.

Where to start? Banish the odious phrase “senior moment” along with the “C.R.A.F.T.” moment – rendered politely as “can’t remember a freaking thing.” And never, ever refer to ourselves as SOFT – Saggy, Old, Forgetful, Tubby.

One of my closest friends e-mailed the other day: “I did manage to go flying on the ice last week, in embarrassingly old lady fashion, but no serious damage done. There is something to be said for extra padding, I guess.”

No, no, no. I love Diann, but this time she had it wrong. People of all ages slip on ice. We slipped on the ice in college without a thought about decrepitude. A tumble now doesn’t mean we’re old ladies. Of course not! How about: “I did manage to keep my aplomb after a flight on the ice last week. No damage was done, and I arose with a smile.” OK, that’s pushing it. To paraphrase Tina Turner, what’s padding got to do with it?

Most boomers don’t feel o-l-d. A 2009 Pew Research Center study found that nearly two-thirds of boomers feel younger than their actual age. A boomer typically feels 9 years younger than his or her driver’s license says.

We boomers simply have to rise above the way younger people think. When Pew asked when old age sets in, people 18 to 29 said at 60. These same young people said that someone who “frequently forgets familiar names” is old. Ha. Less than half of all adults over 30 agree.

And when do people 65-plus say old age starts? Age 74.

Boomers turning 65 in 2011 starts a major demographic shift for this country. By 2030 nearly one in five Americans will be 65 or older. It’ll be a senior boom.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fed pay freeze may warm taxpayers -- Dec. 22, 2010 column


Congress passed a two-year civilian federal pay freeze Tuesday, a step the White House says will save $5 billion by the end of 2012, $28 billion over the next five years and more than $60 billion over 10 years.

OK, but it’s not about the money.

Oh, sure, when President Barack Obama proposed the two-year freeze last month, he said shared sacrifice would be necessary to tame the raging federal deficit. Trouble is, the savings are drops in the $1.3 trillion deficit bucket.

What freezing federal pay does is begin to repair the public’s perception of Washington as clueless and out of touch. Next: Members of Congress should freeze their own pay for another year, as they have the last two.

As 2010 winds to a gloomy close, a spate of polls confirms what we already know. Americans are unhappy – with the country’s direction, with the economy, with Congress, with the president and with the government. Only 17 percent of us are satisfied with the way things are going, Gallup reported.

“For Public, Tough Year Ends on a Down Note,” the Pew Research Center for People & the Press announced.

We’re in the dumps about high unemployment and the sputtering economy. Neither is likely to turn around anytime soon. Only about one in three people see the economy improving in the next year, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey found.

It’s easy to assume bleak is the new black, our new normal.

But here’s another number: 83. That’s the percent that said a three-year pay freeze for federal employees and members of Congress is “totally” or “mostly acceptable,” according to the NBC-Journal poll.

Naturally, it’s easy to freeze someone else’s pay, and most people still don’t work for the government. The overwhelming support of a pay freeze is about the public’s sense that government workers can’t understand the pain private sector workers feel.

While most American workers have faced years of job insecurity, furloughs, layoffs, and pay and benefit cuts, they’ve continued to pay the salaries of federal employees who have been largely insulated from these anxieties.

The ranks of federal workers making $150,000 a year or more “has soared tenfold in the past five years and doubled since President Obama took office,” USA Today reported last month.

The newspaper’s analysis found that the average compensation of federal workers is twice that of private sector employees. Federal workers have gotten bigger pay raises and benefit increases than private sector employees for nine years in a row.

USA Today reported on Bureau of Economic Analysis data that found “federal civil servants earned average pay and benefits of $123,049 in 2009, while private workers made $61,051 in total compensation.”

When Obama proposed the two-year pay freeze last month, he said, “The hard truth is that getting this deficit under control is going to require some broad sacrifice. And that sacrifice must be shared by the employees of the federal government.”

The political truth is that Republicans were already talking about a pay freeze, and Obama’s bipartisan deficit-reduction commission called for a three-year pay freeze a few days later.

Federal workers’ unions argue that workers do feel economic pain and that a pay freeze for federal employees is patently unfair when Congress is cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans. It’s true that the sacrifice is uneven, but it could be worse. Federal workers reportedly still will be eligible for bonuses and promotions.

Members of Congress, having read the handwriting on the wall, refrained from giving themselves pay raises in 2009 and 2010. Senators and representatives make $174,000 a year, with the leadership making more. It would be unseemly Congress to get raises while doctors and nurses in veterans’ hospitals, FBI agents and security officers do without.

The good news in all the gloom is that Americans remain stubbornly optimistic. More than half – 55 percent – of those Pew surveyed think 2011 will be better than 2010.

It’s largely symbolic, but a freeze in federal civilian and congressional pay is good symbolism. The pay freeze may save $60 billion in 10 years. If it warms taxpayers to their government, though, that would be priceless.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Tax cuts, `Catch-22' and what's enough -- Dec. 16, 2010 column


Authors Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller were at a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island in New York. Vonnegut told his pal Heller that their host, a hedge fund manager, probably made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his bestseller “Catch-22” in its entire history.

“Yes,” Heller responded, “but I have something he will never have…enough.”

Vonnegut wrote a poem about the conversation that appeared in The New Yorker in 2005. John C. Bogle, founder of the Vanguard mutual fund group, tells the Vonnegut-Heller story in his 2009 book, “Enough.” He was struck by what he calls “the simple eloquence” of the word enough.

“For a critical element of our society, including many of the wealthiest and most powerful among us, there seems to be no limit today on what enough entails,” Bogle writes.

I’ve been thinking about Bogle, Heller and what’s enough since Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont made his marathon speech last week on the Senate floor.

For nearly nine hours, Sanders, the Senate’s socialist elected as an independent, railed against extending the Bush-era tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. To Sanders, the tax deal Obama and congressional Republican leaders agreed upon was both not enough -- and too much.

He argued that the concessions Republicans made, such as to extend unemployment benefits, were no more than they would have supported anyway. The tax cuts for the richest Americans, he insisted, were unconscionably large.

The president pragmatist said the two-year deal -- which contains the middle-class tax cut he wanted and other benefits -- was the best he could negotiate.

Sanders wasn’t having any compromise. He talked about growing income inequality, rising poverty levels – about 43 million Americans had income below the poverty line has year -- and escalating greed.

“What worries me so much about this growing concentration of wealth and income in this country is that when the rich get richer… they say: I am not rich enough. I need to be richer. What motivates some of these people is greed and greed and more greed,” he said.

Few politicians go after fat cats anymore; even Obama has pulled in his claws and purrs around business leaders. No one had stepped into the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s role as a champion of society’s have-nots – until Sanders. Instead we have more politicians like Sen. Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, who suggest that extending jobless benefits is wrong because it discourages people from looking for work.

Sanders gave voice to the downtrodden, reading letters from ordinary Americans who are struggling to make ends meet. He criticized his Senate colleagues for listening more closely to lobbyists than to their own constituents. He was passionate, articulate and, in the end, unpersuasive.

Obama brought out the really big gun, former President Bill Clinton, to endorse the tax compromise. The Senate rejected Sanders’ attempt to raise taxes on high earners before it overwhelmingly approved the tax package, 81 to 19.

Sanders lost because pragmatism won.

Sanders said he was disappointed but gratified. More than 10,000 phone calls and 9,300 e-mails poured into his office, most supporting him.

While the tax deal does give cuts averaging $100,000 to people whose incomes are above a million dollars a year, it also contains help for the jobless as well as working people and the middle class. It extends unemployment benefits for 13 months, reduces for one year the employee portion of the Social Security payroll tax and continues tax credits that help pay for college.

Critics noted that the deal harms some workers because it provides less payroll tax relief than the recovery act did. The recovery package expires at the end of the year, and some working poor Americans reportedly will pay higher payroll taxes next year.

Other analysts who study how policies affect the poor said the tax deal offered more benefit than expected and likely was better than could be achieved otherwise.

For example, extending unemployment benefits will prevent 7 million jobless workers from losing income support, said Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Greenstein, citing that provision and several others, endorsed the package.

Nobody said pragmatism was pretty, but it gets the job done. Sometimes, that’s enough.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Education or Politics? -- Column of Dec. 9, 2010


While Washington obsessed about the political drama unfolding over taxes, President Barack Obama flew to North Carolina to talk about something even more important than his future: ours.

“I came to Winston-Salem because I believe that right now there are bigger issues at stake for our country than politics,” the president said at a technical college. “At this moment, the most important contest we face is not between Democrats and Republicans. It’s between America and our economic competitors all around the world.”

Let’s see. Unemployment is nudging 10 percent, the economy is stalled -- and the president has to leave Washington to say that educating the young for a global economy is more important than partisan bickering. We do live in interesting times.

Obama’s tax cut compromise with Republicans and the resulting Democrats’ rebellion dominated the nation’s capital. Business leaders praised the president, and liberals likened him to George H.W. Bush, whose reversal on his “no new taxes” pledge cost him a second term.

No wonder Obama wanted to change the subject by talking about education and the world economy.

“In the race for the future, America is in danger of falling behind. That’s just the truth,” he said. “If you hear a politician say it’s not, they’re not paying attention.”

This president hasn’t used the bully pulpit much to galvanize support around national priorities. Republicans defined the tax cut debate, but an across-the-board cut, while popular, won’t make our students smarter or more competitive against those in Asia. Despite all the talk over the last few years about leaving no child behind, this country continues to lag much of the world in math and science.

More bad news about the global education race dropped this week. An international survey reported that teenagers in Shanghai have the world’s top scores in reading, math and science. The United States ranked only 14th in reading, 25th in math and 17th in science literacy, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which oversees the Program for International Student Assessment, known as PISA.

The PISA 2009 survey of how well students in dozens of countries are prepared for the future found that American 15-year-olds are just average. Students in South Korea, Finland and Canada, among others, scored higher than those in America.

Arne Duncan, the education secretary, said the report should be “a wake-up call” that many nations are out-educating us.

“The mediocre performance of America’s students is a problem we cannot afford to accept and yet cannot afford to ignore,” he said.

It’s not for lack of money. We’re falling behind even though we spend more per student than any other country on Earth – except Luxembourg, Duncan said.

Here’s another facet: American 15-year-olds may be only average in reading, math and science, but they are more confident of their academic skills than students in virtually any other country. Duncan called the finding stunning.

“Students here are being commended for work that would not be acceptable in high-performing education systems,” he said.

To be sure, dire reports about American education are nothing new. Politicians have been vowing to reform or transform the system at least since the elder George Bush campaigned for president in 1988, saying he wanted to be the “education president.”

Everyone pays lip service to the notion that the United States needs highly trained scientists and engineers, but our goals shift with the political winds. Recent policy has focused on raising the performance of low-achieving students, a laudable goal, but the brightest achievers deserve attention too. Can’t we help both?

Duncan suggests we can learn from countries that are doing education right. Education ministers from around the world will gather in New York in March for a summit. Some states are already forging ahead in pursuit of higher educational standards and improved teaching, he said.

Obama mentioned the PISA report at a news conference the day after he was in North Carolina.

“So what are we doing to revamp our schools to make sure our kids can compete? What are we doing in terms of research and development to make sure that innovation is still taking place here in the United States?” he asked.

The questions were rhetorical. Instead of talking policy, he segued into a discussion of his coming debate with Republicans over the fairness of the tax code. It was time again for party politics.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Monday, December 6, 2010

States challenge Medicaid expansion

Some 16 million additional Americans will receive Medicaid coverage under the new health reform law, but the expansion is being challenged in federal court in Florida. My story in the AARP Bulletin online looks at the issues.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Killing earmarks won't slay deficit dragon -- Dec. 2, 2010 column


Everybody agrees taming the deficit is going to hurt.

“The problem is real. The solution will be painful. There is no easy way out. Everything must be on the table. And Washington must lead.” So say members of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform in “The Moment of Truth” report.

Co-chairmen Erskine Bowles, a Democrat, and Alan Simpson, a Republican, took aim at dozens of sacred cows in the 60-page report. They called for curbing military spending, raising taxes by nearly $1 trillion by 2020, lifting the retirement age to 69 in 2075 and increasing the gas tax. Many called the plan dead on arrival.

Bowles, former Clinton White House chief of staff, and Simpson, former senator from Wyoming, know their solutions are politically unpalatable. They hope at least to start a serious national conversation.

A first step toward having an adult conversation, though, would be to stop the pretense that killing earmarks will save billions of dollars.

The myth is on page 27 of the commission’s report: “Eliminate all congressional earmarks,” for a savings of “at least $16 billion in 2015.”

Alas, killing earmarks won’t save a nickel.

Earmarks are the special spending projects lawmakers put in for their districts. Earmarks are highly unpopular, especially when other people get them, but they don’t add to spending. They just redirect it.

Commission member Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., called out the earmarks’ proposal Wednesday at the commission hearing where the report was released. The measure “reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how the appropriations process works,” he said.

“I’m sorry you included it,” Durbin told Bowles and Simpson.

Durbin, an appropriations subcommittee chairman, explained that earmarks – which amount to one-half to one percent of appropriations – exist within overall spending limits.

As the proposal’s presence in the report suggests, anti-earmark pressure around the country is intense. Tea party activists and others hate earmarks, which they believe speak to the arrogance of power. Earmarks were an issue in the midterm campaigns, and President Obama is an anti-earmark convert.

In one of their first actions after the election, congressional Republicans approved a two-year moratorium on earmarks. After that, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., declared the emperor wore no clothes. Lugar, who opposed the moratorium, said, “Eliminating earmarks does not reduce spending.”

In a statement, Lugar said, “At a moment in which over-spending by the federal government perpetuates annual deficits to over $1 trillion a year, the Congress is being asked to debate a congressional earmark spending resolution which will save no money, even while giving the impression that the Congress is attempting to meet the public demand to reduce spending.”

Congress holds the power of the purse under the Constitution, and Lugar argues that Congress, by giving up the ability to direct spending, is surrendering its constitutional authority to bureaucrats and the Obama administration., the fact-checking Web site, examined Lugar’s statement and said it was “mostly true.”

“Since earmarks are simply provisions of larger spending bills that direct where lawmakers want the money to go, earmarks, strictly speaking, do not increase the cost of a spending bill – they only tell where portions of that spending should go,” PolitiFact said.

Some analysts think earmarks encourage lawmakers to approve higher budgets so they can be assured of money for their pet projects, so eliminating earmarks could reduce pressure on spiraling budgets, PolitiFact said.

The “Moment of Truth” reports that for fiscal 2010, Congress approved 9,000 earmarks.

“Many of these earmarks are doled out by members of Congress for parochial concerns in their districts and to special interest groups.” The report cites three examples: $1.9 million for a Pleasure Beach Water Taxi Service in Connecticut, $900,000 for a program encouraging Oklahoma students to role-play how to make tough choices as members of Congress, and $238,000 for ancient-style sailing canoes in Hawaii.

These earmarks surely do sound like silly spending tricks, but worthiness is a different issue than cost-savings. Adults coping with real problems can take pain, but they need real solutions, not symbolic gestures.

As for the earmark moratorium, Alan Simpson himself is no fan. He told reporters last month that the ban was as inconsequential as a “sparrow belch.”

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Medicaid Expansion Looms in Virginia

Medicaid is a lifeline for many Americans. Read how its expansion under the health reform law will affect Virginia in my story in the AARP Bulletin.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Nanny state? You betcha! -- Nov. 24, 2010 column


Before “don’t touch my junk” became the rallying cry for the anti-big government crowd, there was “don’t touch my junk food.”

A TV spot during the fall midterm campaigns featured a harried Everymom complaining as she wheeled her grocery cart:

“Feeding a family is difficult enough in today’s economy. Now some politicians want the government telling me how I should do it. They want to put new taxes on groceries I buy, like soft drinks, juices, even flavored waters – trying to control what we eat and drink with taxes.”

Then came the kicker: “The government is just getting too involved in our personal lives!” she declared.

The ad by Americans Against Food Taxes, a coalition of food and grocery industry groups, struck a chord with those who believe Americans have a God-given right to buy junk food at the cheapest possible prices, no matter the cost in obesity-related diseases and health care.

Voters in Washington state repealed a tax on soda, candy and bottled water Nov. 2 after the American Beverage Industry reportedly lavished more than $16 million on such ads.

The vote reflected a deep, if misguided, strain of resentment over “the nanny state.” The most recent episode is protests over intrusive pat-downs by the Transportation Security Administration. No matter that those who are howling the loudest about airport security measures also would be the most critical of President Obama if, heaven forbid, an act of terrorism occurred in the skies.

Perhaps no politician mines the vein of Big Brother discontent more effectively than Sarah Palin, who recently poked fun at the “nanny state run amok.”

Palin visited a Christian school in Pennsylvania and brought with her dozens of cookies. What prompted the glory of sugar was a news report that the Pennsylvania State Board of Education had decided to ban cookies at school parties. It hadn’t, but Palin rarely lets facts get in the way of a good media moment.

“I heard that there’s a debate going on in Pennsylvania over whether public schools were going to ban sweets,” she said. “I wanted these kids to bring home the idea to their parents for discussion. `Who should be deciding what I eat? Should it be government or should it be parents?’ It should be parents.”

Palin not only was mocking the Board of Education, she was also mocking Michelle Obama, who champions healthy eating and physical fitness for kids. Palin seems to be positioning herself for a presidential run as the un-Obama. When a grade schooler asked Palin her favorite animal, she shot back, “To eat?”

Palin’s “nanny state run amok” phrase does open the possibility of a good nanny state, one that could hum along helpfully, only occasionally running off track, but Palin doesn’t deal in nuance. “Nanny state run amok” was just another Palinism.

Perhaps those who believe in the power of government to encourage good behavior should claim nanny state as a positive phrase, not a put-down. It need not always be a pejorative, a clash of us (citizens, parents, fast food junkies) versus them (big, bad, meddling government).

That conflict played out even in San Francisco, the first major city to ban toys and other give-away items for children in fast food meals that exceed 600 calories or fail to include vegetables. The city’s board of supervisors overrode a veto by Mayor Gavin Newsom who had said parents, not the state, should decide what kids eat.

When Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell proposed recently to add a new state tax on soft drinks as a step in curbing the state’s obesity problem, critics lambasted – what else? -- the nanny state and food police.

People never like to be told what to do, of course, but paying a higher tax on certain items may be the nudge we need to make healthier decisions. We’ve gotten that nudge from the government about alcohol and cigarettes. After all, the forces urging us to choose fat and sugar are powerful.

Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity reported this month that the fast food industry spent $4.2 billion in 2009 alone on media ads. The average pre-schooler saw 2.8 TV ads for fast food every day last year. Children 6 to 11 saw 3.5 ads, and teens 4.7 ads. Every day last year.

“Young people must consume less of the calorie-dense, nutrition-poor foods served at fast food restaurants,” the center concludes in “Fast Food F.A.C.T.S.”

“Parents and schools can do more to teach children how to make healthy choices,” the report says.

It’s such a mild, sensible idea that even politicians should agree. But don’t hold your breath.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

EEOC poised to fight age bias in hiring -- Nov. 18, 2010 column


The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission seems poised to fight age discrimination in hiring. That’s good news for workers over 55, who have more trouble recovering from job losses than younger workers.

Unemployment for people 55 and older soared from 3 percent in November 2007 to 7.3 percent in August. While 7.3 percent may not sound bad when the national unemployment rate is stuck near 10 percent, the last 22 months have been the longest spell of high unemployment older workers as a group have experienced in 60 years.

William Spriggs of the Labor Department provided the statistics at an EEOC hearing Wednesday on the plight of older workers in the current economy. Workers over 55 spend far more time searching for work and are jobless far longer than younger workers, he said.

Joblessness hurts older people particularly because they often lose their employer-based health insurance. Their life savings and home values evaporated in the financial meltdown. The triple whammy means retirement isn’t an option for many. Plus, baby boomers are likely to live into their 80s and beyond. Many want to stay active, and that means working.

Federal law prohibits age discrimination in the workplace, but the Age Discrimination in Employment Act mostly has been used to protect workers from discrimination in terminations. The 1967 law was written for a different America. Many people worked for the same company until they retired with a pension. Few older people wanted or had to look for work. In the current economy, though, all that has changed, and the EEOC is weighing its role.

“Many employers and others don’t know discrimination against older workers is illegal,” said Stuart J. Ishimaru, the commissioner who arranged the hearing.

Mary Anne Sedey, an employment attorney in St. Louis, represents many clients who lost jobs in their 50s and 60s. In the “old” days of 10 or 15 years ago, she said, her clients who had lost jobs usually found employment of some kind after a serious job search.

“That’s simply not true anymore,” she said.

Most of the evidence of age discrimination is anecdotal. Sedey told the story of Mike, 63, a salesman with 30 years of experience. Mike prepared a resume that’s somewhat ambiguous about how long he has worked and applied for a job online. The company’s human resources officer called, said Mike sounded just like what they were looking for, and scheduled an interview.

Mike arrived early for his 3 p.m. appointment and, as instructed, waited in the lobby. The interviewer came out, did a double take and told Mike she’d be with him in a few minutes. At 3:50, her assistant came out and said the interviewer was “running behind” and wouldn’t be able to interview him that day. Mike asked when he could come back, and the assistant said they would call him.

The next week, Mike got a letter thanking him for “the interview” and saying someone with better credentials had been hired.

Mike’s experience isn’t unusual, Sedey said. Kathy, 55, an attorney, and Stan, 59, a union carpenter, like Mike, have been unemployed for well over a year. Each has applied for more than 100 jobs, and none has been interviewed for a single one, Sedey said.

Most employers understand that it’s illegal to make hiring and firing decisions based on race or gender – but age is another area entirely.

“I am honestly amazed at the extent to which people don’t think it’s such a big deal to make these decisions based on age,” Sedey said.

Although older workers often believe they have been discriminated against, they rarely go to court because they lack information about what happened to the jobs for which they applied. Applicants rarely know who else applied or the qualifications of the person hired. They can only guess.

Several commissioners said the EEOC must respond to changing times. For a first step, it could stop the use of online job application programs that require an applicant to provide his or her date of birth or graduation dates. These programs often won’t allow someone to continue unless the information is given.

Today, though, said commissioner Chai R. Feldblum, age discrimination “is out there – alive and well.”

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Still learning about the Civil War -- Nov. 11, 2010 column


In April 1961, the National Archives in Washington opened a major exhibition for the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. It did not even mention slavery or emancipation.

That the Archives would gloss over the causes and consequences of the Civil War in telling its history seems incredible, but it reflects the tensions that ran high 50 years ago. The 100th anniversary commemoration of 1961 to 1965 coincided not only with the Cold War but also with the turbulent civil rights movement.

The centennial got off to a shaky start when some Southern states objected to the national commission that Congress and President Eisenhower authorized in 1957 to run the commemoration. It was called the Civil War Centennial Commission. Why, the Southerners asked, was it not the War Between the States?

In October 1960, the Civil War Centennial Commission’s chairman, Ulysses S. Grant III, grandson of the Union Army commander and U.S. president, proclaimed that the Civil War had not torn the country apart.

“The war did not divide us,” Grant wrote. “Rather, it united us, in spite of a long period of bitterness, and made us the greatest and most powerful nation the world had ever seen.”

Grant, who was 80 and a retired Army major general, also wrote in “This Week Magazine” that he had a “close feeling” for the Civil War. The article was titled “Here comes the greatest centennial in U.S. history!” Grant promised battle reenactments, “many on a huge scale,” along with “colorful ceremonies…exhibitions of war trophies and mementos…memorials, parades, new historical markers and a great many special ceremonies.”

Historian Robert J. Cook quotes from the article in his 2007 book “Troubled Commemoration,” which meticulously chronicles what went wrong with the centennial. Civil War historian David W. Blight of Yale has described the official commemoration as nothing short of “a political and historical debacle.”

The commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War so far seems on more solid ground.

For one thing, Congress has refrained from creating a national Civil War sesquicentennial commission. States and localities are organizing most commemorative activities.

On Wednesday, the National Archives opened a major Civil War sesquicentennial exhibition called “Discovering the Civil War” that not only covers slavery and emancipation but also makes clear that the nation was divided.

A description of the eve of the war says: “In 1859 the prospect that the United States would break apart and plunge into civil war seemed remote. Few Americans could have imagined a war that would last four years, destroy much of the South, kill 620,000 soldiers and sailors and free four million slaves. Yet just two years later, it happened.”

The exhibition invites visitors to take a fresh look at the conflict through stories that are little known and documents that are rarely seen. An excellent catalog that accompanies the exhibition is a big help for reading the documents, some of which are hard to decipher in the dim light of the gallery.

The catalogue suggests that visitors examine the evidence, ask questions, listen to a wide variety of voices from the era “and make up your own mind about the struggle that almost tore apart these United States.” That’s open-ended enough not to get the Archives into trouble, even in these cranky times.

The Archives’ centennial exhibit took a top-own approach. It focused on the big names -- Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee -- and marched chronologically through the war from Fort Sumter to Appomattox.

The new exhibition takes a thematic approach. Part I, which was open April 30 to Sept. 6, was called “Beginnings.” Part II, which runs through April 17, is “Consequences” with sections devoted to Spies and Conspiracies, Invention and Enterprise, Prisoners and Casualties, Emancipations, and Endings and Beginnings. The exhibition is the most extensive display ever assembled from the Archives’ Civil War holdings.

The exhibition works hard to disabuse visitors of the notion that documents are just dull pieces of paper. It displays personal letters, photos, lists, posters, telegrams and diagrams -- many retrieved from dusty files since the centennial.

It contains a facsimile of the Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln issued Jan. 1, 1863. The Archives also arranged for a rare showing of the fragile, original proclamation this week.

It also shows a sad letter from a slave in Maryland named Annie Davis. She wrote Lincoln on April 25, 1864, asking if she was free. No response has been found, but the exhibit notes that the answer to her question would have been no. Slavery continued in Maryland until Nov. 1, 1864.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Lovers or fighters? GOP will decide -- Nov. 4, 2010 column


After their midterm victories, most Republican leaders sounded like boyfriends reunited with their sweeties after a bad breakup. They murmured sweet nothings about how this time they’ll really listen.

“A second chance, a golden opportunity,” likely House majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., said on CBS. Senator-elect Marco Rubio, Republican from Florida, called the election “a second chance for Republicans to be what they said they were going to be, not so long ago.”

“What we got was a second chance,” former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., declared on National Public Radio. “Voters had thrown us out the last two times and they’re saying, ‘We’re going to give you a second chance,’ but we come into this on probation.”

And then there was Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

The top Republican in the Senate said Republicans’ top priority the next two years must be to defeat President Barack Obama. After McConnell took some heat for his fighting tone, he went even further.

“The fact is, if our primary legislative goals are to repeal and replace the health spending bill; to end the bailouts; cut spending; and shrink the size and scope of government, the only way to do all of those things is to put someone in the White House who won’t veto any of these things,” McConnell said in a speech Thursday to the Heritage Foundation.

“We can hope the president will start listening to the electorate,” he said. “But we can’t plan on that.”

It would be foolish, McConnell said, to expect Republicans to reverse actions of the last two years as long as a Democrat holds the veto pen.

You have to hand it to McConnell. He doesn’t mind exhibiting raw partisanship even when most of his colleagues are sugarcoating their intentions.

The 2012 campaign is already underway, and McConnell’s goal is to capture the Senate as well as the White House. Republicans expect to hold at least 47 seats going into 2012, when 23 Democrats but only 10 Republicans are up for re-election. The numbers are in Republicans’ favor, and McConnell sees no reason to mess with success.

Far from apologizing for the “party of no,” McConnell credits the midterm victories to Republicans sticking together in “principled opposition” to Obama’s policies. The election was a report card, and voters gave Obama an F, he said.

One way to continue distinguishing themselves from Obama, McConnell said, is for Republicans to force repeated votes on repealing the new health law. They won’t be able to kill it, but they can force Obama to “defend the indefensible” over and over, McConnell told the conservative think tank where his wife Elaine Chao, labor secretary to President George W. Bush, now works.

Obama, in his post-election news conference, warned it would be misreading the election results “if we thought that the American people want to see us for the next two years relitigate arguments that we had over the last two years.” He did indicate some willingness to tinker with the law, however. Exit polls found voters evenly split between wanting to repeal the law and wanting to keep and expand it.

The president has invited Democratic and Republican leaders to the White House for a meeting Nov. 18. Unfortunately, when Republicans were blocking him at every turn early on, Obama waited 18 months to invite McConnell for a one-on-one meeting. McConnell finally sat down alone with the president in August.

Obama says he wants to work with Republicans, but he has shown little appetite yet for changing course, which McConnell and other Republicans say is necessary. Obama now says people wrongly believed his emergency attempts to fix the economy were part of his agenda for bigger government.

Republicans who are about to take control of the House have started talking about their own agendas, which they say reflect what they’ve heard from voters. Cantor put out a 22-page document of House reforms and spending cuts.

But here’s the thing. Voters rewarded the “party of no” in 2010. Next time, Republicans will be running on their own record. For years, some have pushed such ideas as partially privatizing Social Security and Medicare for workers under 55, two goals of the likely House Budget chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

Voters “didn’t fall in love with Republicans. They fell out of love with Democrats,” McConnell said.

We’ll see whether voters fall in love with Republicans by 2012.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, October 28, 2010

Health reform law alive, if unwell -- Oct. 28, 2010 column


Rarely has a law proved as unpalatable to both the political right and the left as the optimistically titled Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

To conservatives, “Obamacare” is a dog’s breakfast of a socialism and big government intrusion. Liberals complain that without a public option, the so-called reform law is just thin gruel. Both sides blame President Barack Obama, and he concedes he has been frustrated with the legislative process.

Unemployment is a bigger issue, but the new health-care law hovered over the midterm campaigns. Seven in 10 people who said they planned to vote said the new law would affect their vote, a survey by the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute found.

Republican candidates promise to kill the law, but it won’t be easy. Forty-five percent of registered voters want to keep the health-care plan and 41 percent favor repeal, the latest New York Times-CBS News poll reported.

Once again, then, change electrifies the air, but as we’ve learned in the last two years, change is easier to promise than to deliver.

While the new GOP members in Congress may be able to slow the plan’s implementation, repeal seems unlikely, given the close partisan divides in the Senate and House.

Some provisions -- allowing young people to age 26 to stay on their parents’ health insurance plans, outlawing discrimination against sick children and removing the cap on lifetime benefits – are popular. Others, such as requiring everyone to purchase insurance, are in the courts. Health economists still say the plan falls without everyone’s participation.

When Obama went on “The Daily Show” Wednesday to gin up support for Democratic candidates, he again defended the new law, saying 30 million people will now get health insurance coverage. He mentioned a woman in New Hampshire who won’t have to sell her house to get her cancer medications. She doesn’t think the law is inconsequential, he said.

To liberal critics who call his legislative agenda timid, Obama said, “What happens is it gets discounted because the presumption is, well, we didn’t get 100 percent of what we wanted; we got 90 percent of what we wanted – so let’s focus on the 10 percent we didn’t get.”

Obama never persuaded Republicans to back health-care reform, and now he has lost the argument within his own party. Many Democratic candidates distanced themselves from both the Affordable Care Act and the president. West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, embroiled in a tight Senate race, once said he’d fix the law when he came to Washington. More recently he has said he wouldn’t have voted for it, period.

My guess is most people who favor repeal have health insurance. They don’t want higher premiums or lower benefits. But the traditional way of getting health insurance – through an employer – is fading.

Fifty-nine percent of non-elderly Americans received health insurance through their employers in 2009, according to the benefit research institute. That is still a majority of those under age 65, but it’s a dwindling majority. In 2000, some 68.4 percent of non-elderly Americans had employment-based health benefits.

With fewer people likely to get health insurance at work in the future, the deep resistance to a public option is puzzling, especially considering the widespread popularity of Medicare. It turns out that other Americans also are more likely to get their health-care coverage through the government.

In 2009, more than one in five non-elderly Americans received coverage through such public plans as Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which are growing. Only about 6 or 7 percent of Americans purchased their insurance individually, a group that has remained fairly constant.

Obama may wish health-care reform would disappear as an issue, but it’s likely to follow him and Congress into 2012.

On “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart asked Obama if he might run this time as a pragmatist. Would his slogan be “`Yes we can, given certain conditions?’”

“I think what I would say is yes we can, but…” Obama said, trailing off as the audience and Stewart began to laugh.

“But it’s not going to happen overnight,” the president said. He didn’t laugh.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

U.S. unlikely ever to be color blind, Condoleezza Rice says in memoir -- Oct. 21, 2010 column


Shortly after LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, opening restaurants to all races, a black family -- mom, dad and their 9-year-old little girl -- in Birmingham, Ala., went to a drive-in hamburger stand for the first time.

The daughter still remembers what happened: “It was nighttime, and as I bit into my hamburger, I told my parents that something tasted funny. Daddy turned on the car light. The bun was filled with onions; nothing else, just onions.”

Condoleezza Rice, who rose to the pinnacle of American success, becoming the first African-American woman secretary of state, tells the story from her childhood in her new memoir, “Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family.”

Legal segregation ended with the 1964 law, she writes, adding mildly, “Decent people, not extremists but ordinary people, would start to adapt to that fact.”

Today, she says, “Race is no longer determinative of how far one can go. That said, America is not color blind and likely never will be. Race is ever present, like a birth defect that you learn to live with but can never cure.”

That’s a tough assessment, but Rice’s roots are in the segregated South in the last half of the 20th century.

As the country began to change, she was able to move ahead, fueled by parental encouragement and her own ambition and hard work. She became a Soviet specialist with a Ph.D., worked in the Reagan and Bush I White Houses and became national security adviser to George W. Bush. She served as provost of Stanford University.

She credits her success to family, especially her late parents, John and Angelena Rice, teachers and community. At home and at school, she says, expectations were high.

“`To succeed,’ they routinely reminded us, ‘you will have to be twice as good.’ This was declared as a matter of fact, not a point for debate,” she writes.

Her maternal grandparents set family standards to maintain their dignity. They refused to allow their children to use a “colored” restroom or water foundation, telling them to wait until they got home. They owned a car to keep their children from having to ride in the back of the bus.

An only child, she began piano lessons at age 3. Soon came ballet, gymnastics and baton twirling lessons. She went to a French tutor on Saturdays. She had private typing lessons, in case she needed to know how. She took ice skating lessons.

Her parents were middle-class – her mother was a teacher and her father a guidance counselor and Presbyterian minister. John Rice became a Republican when only the Republican registrar would register to vote. He refused to join the Rev. Martin Luther King in civil rights marches, saying he did not believe in non-violence when attacked and feared he’d leave his daughter an orphan. He became friends with Stokely Carmichael and other black radicals.

“Years later, when so much attention was paid to then-Senator Obama’s radical associations, I wondered what might have been made of the people who sat our dinner table,” says Rice, who did not mention her thoughts when Obama was criticized.

John Rice moved his family from Alabama when he became an administrator at Denver University. “Daddy (said) that racism was clearly alive and well in Denver in 1972 and that he preferred the blatant racism of Alabama, for in the South ‘at least you knew where you stood.’”

His daughter understood “because I’d experienced this implicit racism firsthand.” As a high school student in Denver, Rice scored poorly on a college aptitude test. The guidance counselor suggested that she consider junior college. The confident Rice just laughed, but she did not forget.

“I have always worried that there are many young people, particularly minorities, who might internalize negative messages like that and simply give up,” she writes.

Her memoir reminds us of a shameful era. Our country’s future is brighter because of those who fought —and fight -- racism. Fortunately, in the 21st century, young people of all races have as their role models Colin Powell, Barack Obama – and Condoleezza Rice.

Onion sandwiches are in our hateful past. The sting of racial prejudice should be gone, too.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, October 14, 2010

World starved for good news feasts on Chile -- Oct.14, 2010 column


The Chilean miners’ dramatic rescue drew hordes of American media – but that wasn’t all. News organizations worldwide could not resist the story’s gravitational pull.

News outlets from 33 countries on five continents reportedly converged on the Atacama desert in Northern Chile to cover the 22-hour rescue.

Interestingly, the Chileans made sure the miners were ready for the media’s prying eyes. For nine days before the rescue, a Chilean former journalist named Alejandro Pino gave the miners tips via video link on how to talk to waiting reporters, the Washington Post reported.

After the 33 miners – clean shaven and clad in cool, green jumpsuits -- and their six rescuers were safely above ground, with the miners in far better health than many had predicted, even sober-sided news organizations went as soft as warm brie. The BBC’s blog concluded, “In the end, a potential tragedy in a remote corner of the world has been utterly transformed into one of the greatest tales of good news ever told.”

The phrasing was extravagant, but it hardly seemed an exaggeration. The world, starved for good news, suddenly had a feast. The 69-day ordeal for the miners trapped deep underground ended in a triumph of faith, hope and science. This story had something for everyone.

ABC News called the rescue the “Miracle in the Mine.” These days, we throw around words like miracle to describe everything from face cream to the latest electronic gizmo. But this time the word seemed right: 69 days is reportedly the longest period humans have ever lived underground.

Many people credited the religious faith of the miners with their survival. A 55-year-old miner had asked for Bibles, which had been dropped through the supply tube, and he had led a prayer group. As they came to the surface, many miners prayed.

Miners’ family members and friends and the Chilean government preserved hope when circumstances were most dire. The mine collapsed Aug. 5, and 17 days passed before anyone knew the miners had survived. Their provisions were so reduced that they were down to eating a spoonful of tuna a day. A small tube the size of a grapefruit was inserted to ferry supplies nearly half a mile down.

Science and engineering then came into play. Thanks to fiber optics, each miner received a daily doctor’s consultation on video, according to the New York Times, which reported that NASA doctors and Chilean Navy officers with submarine experience were consulted on the strains of prolonged confinement.

For Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, a billionaire with a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard who took office only in March, the catastrophe became a point of national pride – and poetry.

“We have lived a magical night, a night we will remember throughout our lives, a night in which life defeated death,” Pinera said of the rescue.

And, he said, “We did it the Chilean way. That means we did it well.”

The crisis called out the best in the United States as well. President Barack Obama commended the Chileans and praised the Americans involved: “from the NASA team that helped design the escape vehicle to American companies that manufactured and delivered parts of the rescue drill to the American engineer who flew in from Afghanistan to operate the drill.”

As the miners emerged from what was called the shift from hell, each wore protective sunglasses provided free by the Oakley eyewear company, based in California. The glasses retail for $200 a pair, according to Oakley’s Web site.

The miners are safe, the focus on Chile has boosted sales of Chilean wine, and there may even be an uptick in Chilean tourism.

But the story doesn’t end just because the news glare does. The magical night with its miracle in the mine may yet have a darker side.

Life for the miners may turn from ecstasy to melancholy as they learn what it means to live as celebrities. Upon investigation, the state-owned copper and gold mine may be found to have been poorly managed or rife with safety problems. Pinera in time may govern disappointingly – and in prose.

Still, what may happen down the road should not dim our joy. We needed some good news, and we got it.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

In Virginia, the village concept helps people age in place

Want to stay in your own home all your life? Sometimes it takes a village. My article in AARP Bulletin

Democrats and hope, 2010 edition -- Oct. 7, 2010 column


You can’t blame ‘em for hoping.

With midterm elections on the horizon, Democrats have waited all year, fingers crossed, for the economy to bounce back. People might still be hurting come autumn, but favorable economic reports – at the least -- could help restore voters’ optimism and avert a Democratic train wreck Nov. 2. That was the theory.

The final economic numbers before the midterm elections are coming in, and, this won’t surprise you, the news isn’t great. The economy is still limping. It’s not about to throw down its crutches and sprint to Election Day. The jobless rate remains stuck, nudging 10 percent.

Republicans are gleeful, practically measuring for drapes in the House Speaker’s office. So what are Democrats supposed to do? President Barack Obama explained the grave situation Wednesday:

“Now when unemployment is still at 9.5, 9.6 percent, that gives an enormous advantage to whoever is not in power because they can simply point at the status quo and regardless of causation say, ‘You know what? It’s the folks who are in power that are at fault.’”

As if on cue, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2012, started calling Democrats “the party of food stamps” and Republicans “the party of paychecks.”

The food stamp rolls typically expand during a recession. About 32 million people received food stamps when Obama took office, and 41.8 million received them in July, according to the Agriculture Department’s Food and Nutrition Service. Most people, of course, would prefer a paycheck.

Without a positive economic story to spread, Obama advised Democrats not to lose hope.

“What we have to do is to make sure that we maintain our focus on the long game,” the president counseled in New Jersey, according to news reports. His audience that night was well insulated from the anxiety of joblessless or food insecurity. Guests paid $30,400 a plate for dinner.

Democrats should not surrender control of the House and Senate because the next two years are crucial, Obama said. This is no time for Democrats to “start sulking and sitting back and not doing everything we can do to make sure our folks turn out.”

When he talked about the long game, Obama could have been referring to the 2012 election. Republicans would like nothing better than to add him to the ranks of the unemployed.

On the campaign trail, the president tries to reignite the hope of 2008, but he may feel like he’s using damp matches.

Last month, he told a Congressional Black Caucus dinner, “I need everybody here to go back to your neighborhoods, to go back to your workplaces, to go to the churches, and go to the barbershops and go to the beauty shops. And tell them we’ve got more work to do.”

The longest recession since World War II officially ended in June 2009, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, but a jobless recovery is a low tide that fails to lift anyone’s boat.

The stock market rally notwithstanding, most people are still holding their breath, waiting for jobs and security. Large companies have cash but reportedly are sitting on it or buying back stock to boost stock prices rather than hiring workers.

Non-farm, private employers pared 39,000 workers in September, according to the monthly ADP National Employment Report issued Wednesday, the last report before the election. Economists had expected a loss of about 20,000 jobs. Manufacturing, financial services and construction all lost jobs. The one bright spot, as usual, was the services sector.

The good news in recent reports is that things have been worse. Retail sales are up, and the number of first-time applicants for unemployment benefits dropped during the week that ended Oct. 2. The decline of 11,000 applicants was greater than economists expected -- but not enough to cheer about. Most analysts expect unemployment to inch up through the end of the year and beyond.

The National Retail Federation expects a “moderate” Christmas season – with sales up a little but seasonal employment down from last year.

And yet, Democrats can find glimmers of hope in the gloom. Vice President Joe Biden reassures audiences that reports of the death of the Democratic party have been greatly exaggerated.

And any day a Republican Senate candidate has to run a TV ad proclaiming she’s not a witch has to be a good one for Democrats.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

No more books? -- Sept. 30, 2010 column


My memories of high school do not include textbooks. I remember rambling more than I remember cracking a book.

I wandered into journalism at the school newspaper, met T.S. Eliot in the library and schemed petty rebellion listening to folk music. Fueled by black coffee and Bob Dylan, my friends and I drove aimlessly into adventures that always ended too soon. We had curfews.

Textbooks were remote, boring and infinitely forgettable.

This year, though, students at Clearwater (Fla.) High School, my alma mater, actually may remember their textbooks. For the first time, all of Clearwater High’s 2,100 students received Kindle electronic readers personalized with their individual textbooks. Amazon has said the high school is the country’s first to issue devices to all students.

“I feel like a pioneer walking into a new era,” Clearwater principal Keith Mastorides told the St. Petersburg Times.

The students and faculty in Clearwater are hardly the only pioneers stepping into a new era. Nearly each day brings a milestone in the evolution of how we read.

Today you can read newspapers, books or magazines instantly. Your customized news feed from sources you pick comes directly to you. Still, it’s hard to beat the serendipity of finding articles you didn’t know you wanted to read while turning print pages.

So far, the publishing industry accommodates both the print and the digital enthusiast, but newspapers and magazines are struggling. Some experts predict the demise of the print book in five short years. That sounds extreme, but Amazon reported this summer that for every 100 hardbacks, it sells 143 digital books for Kindles.

Providing electronic readers and digital books is technologically savvy and saves school districts money. But should the school library go the way of bound books?

Cushing Academy, a prep school in Massachusetts, is getting rid of its library books and spending half a million dollars on a replacement for its library. Officials haven’t decided whether to call the new place a “learning center” or something else, the Boston Globe reported.

“In place of the stacks, they are spending $42,000 on three large flat-screen TVs that will project data from the Internet and $20,000 on special laptop-friendly study carrels. Where the reference desk was, they are building a $40,000 coffee shop that will include a $12,000 cappuccino machine,” David Abel wrote in the Globe.

The University of Texas at San Antonio’s Applied Engineering and Technology Library brags that it’s the first university library to go totally book-free. Other scientific libraries have been moving toward a book-free state, but at the UT-San Antonio library, there’s not one bound volume. All 425,000 books and 18,000 scholarly journal articles are accessible only by computer.

The Web site Inside Higher Ed called the Texas library “a symbol of the inevitability of electronic as the prevailing medium” in academia.

For now, most students can explore library stacks with their shelves of endless possibility.

But change is upon us. The venerable New Yorker, first published in 1925, just launched an iPad version to augment its print and other digital offerings.

In a reassuring note to readers in the Oct. 4 issue, the editors said print remains the magazine’s most popular form “by miles,” and yet they sniped gratuitously at another print tradition: “Unlike a Sunday newspaper, say, the print magazine is still a beautiful, portable, storable, slide-it-into-your-bag-able technology.”

Beauty is in the eye of the holder. Sunday newspapers are big, fat and unwieldy when they have lots of advertising. Ads, as the editors of The New Yorker well know, are a good thing.

The magazine’s editors also wrote: “We’re at once delighted and a little bewildered about this latest digital development and our place in it: delighted because of the quality of what the tablet provides and the speed with which the magazine can be distributed, but bewildered, too, because we’d be liars if we say we knew precisely where the technology will lead.”

Amen. Delighted and bewildered we all are, and none of us knows where the technology will lead.

In Clearwater, a 10th grader told a local TV station it felt like Christmas morning when she got her Kindle. Other students say the devices are a weight off their shoulders. They’re only 8” by 5” and weigh 10 ounces. Students can take notes and look up words in a built-in dictionary. The device has a wireless connection.

“It’s still a book,” said principal Mastorides. “But it’s a book-plus!”

We’ll find out if the students remember just the Kindles or also the subject matter they contain. I, for one, hope the devices also encourage youthful ramblings, real or virtual. Many of high school’s lessons don’t come from books.

The book-plus – or whatever you call the latest technology – offers students of all ages ease and freedom. Happy wandering.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Obama hits reset button -- Sept. 23, 2010 column


Not content to say that Barack Obama is a bad president, Republican commentators and politicians declare him the worst in history.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., jumped to that conclusion back in June; Obama had been in office fewer than 17 months. Ben Quayle, a congressional candidate in Arizona and son of former Vice President Dan Quayle, made the claim unequivocally last month in a video. Partisan provocateurs charge early and often that Obama is the worst.

It’s hardly new for critics to cast a president with whom they disagree to the bottom of the presidential barrel, but the vitriol against Obama arrived particularly early. George W. Bush was well into his second term before Rolling Stone ran a cover story in April 2006 saying historians wondered if Bush would be remembered as the worst president in all of American history.

Today’s urge for the quick judgment and rhetorical overkill is puzzling. Obama won’t be on a ballot for more than two years, and signs indicate that he may not be the albatross to Democrats in November that Republicans hope.

Americans are angry and grim, but they are sharply split about the job the president is doing. Fifty percent of Americans disapprove of how Obama is handling his job, but 49 percent approve of his performance, according to an AP-Gfk poll earlier this month. Other polls show a similar split.

Congressional Republicans are even less popular than Democrats in Congress, with 68 percent of respondents disapproving of Republicans’ job performance and 60 percent of Democrats.

Perhaps more telling is the deep divide among those who say they’ll vote strategically in November. Twenty-six percent say they’ll use their vote to show opposition to Obama – but 26 percent also say they’ll vote to show their support of the president. Interestingly, 48 percent said Obama would not be a factor for them in November at all, according to the AP-Gfk poll.

Presidents don’t get “do overs” of their decisions, but Obama is hitting the reset button on his presidency.

The rap against Obama has been that he failed to focus tightly enough on jobs and the economy. A month ago, House Republican leader John Boehner suggested the president fire his economic team to show he got the public’s unhappiness. Three key players of Obama’s economic team are departing; apparently voluntarily. Chief of staff Rahm Emanuel also appears headed for the door. This gives Obama an opportunity before the midterm elections to retool his economic policies and his message.

Some Democratic candidates are keeping the president at arm’s length, but the White House will deploy the more popular Obama – first lady Michelle Obama’s approval ratings exceed her husband’s by 20 points – in six states next month. She is expected to raise some $20 million in campaign cash.

And, health-care reform is again in play. A majority of Americans say they want to repeal Obama’s signature program, and Republicans have pledged to do just that if they regain control of Congress. Several provisions that just went into effect, however, may change people’s attitudes.

Sixty-one percent of likely voters favored repeal of the new law, according to the latest Rasmussen poll, which was taken before new benefits under the Affordable Care Act rolled out Thursday. Most of the law’s provisions go into full effect in 2014, the law’s six-month anniversary brought several provisions aimed at improving care for families.

New rules allow young adults under 26 to stay on their parents’ health-insurance plans or require health insurance plans to offer free preventive care, including mammograms and colonoscopies.

Insurance companies are now prohibited from discriminating against children with preexisting conditions. Companies no longer can drop coverage if someone gets sick or unintentionally makes a mistake on his or her insurance application. New policies will not contain lifetime limits on key benefits. Consumers also will be able to appeal insurance decisions to an independent group.

The White House launched a major public relations campaign to let people know about the new rules. A new health reform Web page at features an interactive U.S. map with stories from each of the 50 states about how real people benefit. Obama talked up the new provisions at an event in Virginia that included remarks by grateful patients flown in from around the country.

Obama said he faults himself “for not being able to make the case more clearly to the country.”

Republican National Chairman Michael Steele framed the Republican response: “The president’s plan was unpopular when it passed in March and today the wholesale takeover of the American health system is undeniably radioactive.”

The debate is on: The people will decide what’s radioactive and what kind of president Barack Obama is.


Thursday, September 16, 2010

Angry voters rewrite campaign story -- Sept. 16, 2010


Thank you, wacky voters of Delaware and New York. Without you, we’d still be hip-deep in predictions of a Democratic disaster at the polls in November.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not endorsing the inexperienced, Tea Party-backed candidates who won Tuesday’s primaries in the First State and the Empire State. Nor did the results there end rampant speculation that Democrats are in big trouble with midterm elections.

But I am glad the 2010 campaign storyline has changed, finally. Angry voters in Delaware and New York, building on Tea Party strength earlier in the primary season, made it happen.

For months, we’ve heard and read countless permutations on the whither-Congress theme. Stories about Democrats’ potential loss of the House and perhaps the Senate became the political equivalent of the bedbug epidemic. The news media went gaga about the possibilities, running out every imaginable scenario. Merely reading about either topic made some people itch.

While November may still prove disastrous for Democrats, the final primary contests raised Democratic hopes and managed to accomplish something not even the president could. President Obama invoked a dreary future under a Republican House Speaker, John Boehner, but the storyline wouldn’t budge.

It took ordinary Americans voting in primaries to change the narrative of the fall campaign.

Nothing whips heads around faster in political and media circles than the unexpected. When candidates endorsed by the Tea Party activists trounced establishment Republicans in the Delaware and New York primaries, the national narrative pivoted instantly.

Suddenly, the story is that September’s Tea Party triumph sets the table for a deep Republican disappointment in November. While the House still is within GOP reach, Republicans may find it more difficult to wrest control of the Senate because the seat formerly held by Vice President Joe Biden will more likely stay Democratic.

The emergence of Christine O’Donnell adds fascinating new elements to what-if calculations.

Thirty thousand people in Delaware voted for O’Donnell, a perennial candidate with a hazy work and educational background. She beat Rep. Mike Castle 53 percent to 47 percent.

Castle had been so favored, however, that he hadn’t even prepared a concession speech; a speech reportedly had to be written on the fly Election Night. And no wonder: Castle has had a lifetime of public service. He has won a dozen statewide elections, including two as governor and nine as Delaware’s only U.S. House member.

O’Donnell, for her part, had the endorsement of Sarah Palin and Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. The Tea Party Express group ran TV ads on her behalf.

Said O’Donnell: “The commonsense men and women of Delaware are tired of the same-old coming out of Washington. They don’t want more of the same. Well, we are not more of the same.”

She’s right about that. Although she hews the Tea Party line on lower taxes and smaller government, her social views raise eyebrows. On, the headline for a news video read: “WATCH: Christine O’Donnell’s Masturbation Stance.” It linked to a 1996 documentary in which an earnest O’Donnell explains why as a Christian she’s against masturbation.

In the New York gubernatorial primary, a real-estate mogul in his first campaign for public office beat former Rep. Rick Lazio. Carl Paladino, like O’Donnell, also had Tea Party backing and has strong conservative social views. He opposes gay marriage and is against abortion even in cases of rape and incest. He has said he’ll use eminent domain law to keep property in lower Manhattan free of an Islamic Center.

Republican leaders are concerned about how such social issues will play this fall with voters.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told the New York Times that as he has traveled, “I’ve talked to a lot of folks who are basically independents who say: I’m fine with the Republicans as long as we’re talking about fiscal responsibility. Where I got off the reservation is when you talk about social issues.”

As November nears, you can expect Democrats to sharpen the focus on social issues. The surprising final primaries of 2010 remind us that the parties, the politicians and the country’s direction all depend on ordinary citizens who vote.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Struggling to define religious tolerance -- Sept. 9, 2010 column


A man in a small Virginia town once told me about life in his closely-knit community.

People here live and let live, he said. They don’t care what their neighbors do on Saturday night or where they go Sunday morning – as long as it’s church. And, he explained, that doesn’t mean just Baptist or Methodist; any church is fine.

I nearly spit out my iced tea, but the man spoke without irony, proud of what he saw as tolerance among like-minded people. It evidently never occurred to him that some in town might be non-believers or non-Christians.

That was years ago, when many Americans rarely imagined living next door to someone whose religious views were unlike theirs. In 2010, though, the news is filled with international outrage over an obscure preacher’s plans to burn Korans in Florida and flaring tempers over a planned Islamic community center in lower Manhattan. A Muslim cab driver was stabbed apparently because of his faith; protesters taunted a dark-skinned man they mistakenly thought was Muslim.

As we struggle to define religious tolerance for our time, we ask ourselves how a nation founded on religious liberty ever reached such a sorry state of affairs. Aren’t we better than this?

Before we beat ourselves up about the actions of a few, though, it’s worth remembering that people have been fighting for religious tolerance since we set foot in the “new” world. The history of America is rife with shameful incidents in which our neighbors were mistreated because they came from somewhere else -- and their faith was different.

And yet, because intolerance doesn’t sit well, Americans have tended to ignore the signs. Even religious historians have been reluctant to lay unpleasant cards on the table.

“American religious history…often reads like a Garrison Keillor story where religion is nice, its practitioners are upstanding, and the nation is above average.” John Corrigan and Lynn S. Neal write in their new book, “Religious Intolerance in America.”

Americans bask in the country’s romantic “founding myth” that begins with Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution for a land of liberty, includes a First Amendment that protects all views and culminates in the 21st century with the most diverse nation on Earth. The reality is quite different, write Corrigan and Neal.

Corrigan, who heads the religion department at Florida State University, and Neal, who teaches religion at Wake Forest University, have compiled a documentary history of religious intolerance starting with the Colonial era, when Pilgrims hanged Quakers, and Protestants attacked Catholics. Despite the uplifting words of Jefferson and the Bill of Rights -- “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” -- the federal government in the 19th century attempted to wipe out Native Americans’ religion and several states declared war on Mormons.

In 1838, Missouri Gov. Lilburn W. Boggs signed an “Extermination Order” against Mormons that stated in part, “The Mormons must be treated as enemies and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary.” Even more astonishing, the law languished on the state’s books until 1976, when it was rescinded by then-Gov., now Sen., Christopher “Kit” Bond.

In the 1850s, anti-Catholic fervor halted construction of the Washington Monument. A furor ensued in 1855 when Pope Pius IX sent a memorial stone for the monument. The small, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant “Know Nothing” Party seized control of the Washington National Monument Society through an illegal election, and the Know-Nothings reportedly threw the Pope’s stone into the Potomac River.

Corrigan and Neal report that in the 1940s, mobs assaulted Jehovah’s Witnesses. During World War II, part of the goal in rounding up Japanese Americans for interment was to isolate Buddhist priests and Shinto practitioners. Buddhists, eager to assimilate, began calling their temples Buddhist churches.

Things are little better today. Hate crime statistics since the mid-1990s indicate that religion is second only to race as a motivating factor of hate crimes, write Corrigan and Neal. They declare false the Christian Right’s claims that today it’s Christians who are persecuted.

I haven’t been back to the town where church on Sunday was a must. My guess is attitudes have changed there as they have everywhere.

What endures is that we Americans still prize religious freedom and tolerance, however we define it. President Barack Obama was right that burning Islam’s holy book would be “completely contrary to our values.”

Our country may not always live up to our values, but every day that we as individuals stand with and support someone whose religious views differ from ours, we move a step closer to our American ideals.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Obama and that pesky 'vision thing' -- Sept. 2, 2010 column


On joyous Inauguration Day 2009, the last thing anyone imagined was that Barack Obama would have trouble with “the vision thing.”

That, you recall, was the dismissive term President George H. W. Bush used about his trouble formulating and expressing his overarching principles. Obama, the brilliant orator and thinker about race, surely would face no such difficulties. He would know where he wanted to take the country and why, and he’d explain it eloquently. So many people thought.

It’s ironic that after 19 months in office, Obama is having the problem no one expected. While he has accomplished several significant goals -- healthcare and financial reform and ending the war in Iraq – the president suffers from collapsing job approval ratings. His party is on the ropes.

How did Obama, who started so high, fall so far? My theory is that the president’s troubles stem from his failure to articulate a vision for the country and how his policies would get us there. Without a convincing, comprehensive narrative or story line, there’s a void, which both sides exploit. The political right fills the void with scary pictures of big-government ruination while the left paints equally disturbing pictures of an uncaring society.

The truth is probably between the two, but that doesn’t help people caught in the recession’s undertow. People buffeted by economic forces beyond their control need the president to throw them a more substantial lifeline than the idea that he inherited a mess and they should be patient.

The president has said he thought his actions would speak for themselves, but his critics have been more than eager to fill in blanks with erroneous information about who he is (a Muslim) and what he believes in (socialism).

In his speech Tuesday night from the Oval Office, Obama tried to restart the conversation by saying it’s time to turn the page on the war in Iraq and refocus on the economy. So far, so good. But on Thursday he was hosting Middle East peace talks with Israelis and Palestinians in Washington.

To be sure, every president must move between foreign and domestic policy issues, and, yes, the talks had long been scheduled. Still, the timing again raised questions about the president’s focus and his message.

Columnist Michael Gerson, chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush, wrote in the Washington Post: “This is a president who has lost control of his public message. It wanders unleashed from park to alley, stopping to sniff every cable news story along the way.”

More positive, if less colorful, spin: This is a president with an agile mind that glides easily from one problem to the next as he quickly responds to pressing events. Much, you see, depends on how the message is framed.

With about 60 days until the elections, virtually every political analyst is predicting a Republican rout, albeit with caveats about lightning strikes. Some are comparing this to the 1994 midterm election, when both houses of Congress went Republican for the first time in 40 years. Not a single Republican seeking re-election to the House or Senate or as governor lost.

This year, Republicans are likely to take back the House and the Senate is in play.

The big issue remains jobs, and Obama is right to declare the economy his central mission. Some economists, though, predict it will take years for the United States to dig out of the recession. That’s time Obama doesn’t have.

Nor does he have many tools available. His “Summer of Recovery” tour fell flat. He has talked up small business tax breaks. Some Democrats want a second economic stimulus package -- by another name, of course – but chances of such legislation are small to nil.

Unfortunately, even the economic experts are flummoxed. Christina Romer, who stepped down as top White House economic adviser, said in her farewell speech this week that this is “not a normal recession” like the one in which her father lost his job in 1981-82, and there are no magic bullets.

With unemployment stuck near 10 percent, “The American people are suffering terribly,” she said, adding, that’s “unacceptable.”

Back to you, Mister President.

(c) 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Ebonics still pushes hot buttons -- Aug. 26, 2010 column


Americans reacted with our usual cool-eyed calm to news that the Drug Enforcement Administration intends to hire Ebonics translators.

Ha. I wish that were true. In fact, the hot buzz on TV and the Web quickly escalated from “bizarre,” “truly strange” and “Ridiculous!” to “Have we lost our minds?” and ugly, emotional, dialect-ridden rants.

Many people evidently find it horrifying that the government would “reward” people who speak Ebonics with jobs. Others object to the government’s recognizing Ebonics at all.

“Speak English and forget the jive,” one reader commented online.

“This country has gone absolutely crazy,” said another.

The source of the uproar were reports that the DEA is trying to recruit nine fluent Ebonics experts in the Southeast to help translate wiretapped conversations of suspected drug dealers. The translators will have to render the conversations into good English so the evidence can be used in court.

Last I heard, nobody wants drug dealers to go free merely because they use a vocabulary that’s unintelligible to white-bread investigators. It’s hard to fault the government for hiring contract workers who can comprehend and testify about what criminals say. The program isn’t without potential problems, however. It’s unclear how the proficiency of Ebonics experts will be proved to judges’ satisfaction. That’s an issue for another day.

Nobody complains that the DEA is seeking translators of more than a hundred other languages – Arabic, Spanish, French, Sicilian, Afghan Persian, Vietnamese – including the obscure Ga, spoken in Ghana, and Hakka (Mauritius).

It’s use of the word Ebonics that’s the red flag. Had DEA called Ebonics by one of its more formal, academic monikers – African American Vernacular English, Vernacular Black English or Black English Vernacular – some people think it might have avoided controversy. Of course, it also would have been criticized for sneakiness.

Ebonics, as it’s known to the public, has evolved into an urban language that’s no longer spoken only by African Americans, DEA Special Agent Michael Sanders told the Associated Press. The Atlanta DEA office “saw a need for this in a couple of their investigations,” he said.

A spokesman for U.S. English told CNN the advocacy group supports DEA’s attempt to understand drug dealers’ conversations.

The last time a government entity tried to recognize Ebonics, a blended word from “ebony” and “phonics,” Bill Clinton was president. A firestorm ensued in December 1996, when the Oakland, Calif., school board passed a resolution declaring Ebonics a second language and the primary language of its African American students.

The board said it was simply acknowledging the language students spoke at home. Declaring students bilingual, however, also could have made the school system eligible for special federal funds. Bowing to pressure, a new school board undid the resolution the next month.

The underlying issue is the nature of language and how it changes. One description, used by the Linguistic Society of America and others, is that language is an enormous house that has to be reconstructed by each new occupant, who has to discover its design as the work is in progress, and while the previous occupants are still living in it.

The linguistic society stood up for Ebonics after the Oakland controversy. It passed a resolution in 1997 saying that characterizations of Ebonics as "slang," "mutant," "lazy," "defective," "ungrammatical," or "broken English" are incorrect and demeaning.

Some linguists have spent decades trying to convince the public that “the language variety of African Americans…is systematic and rule-governed.” For them, DEA’s announcement was upsetting and frustrating, because, “The only people we have managed to convince is the DEA,” wrote H. Samy Alim and Imani Perry on

Today, while Ebonics can still excite controversy, it seems decidedly last century. The focus of English preservationists has shifted to the influx of Spanish speakers.

The linguistic society recently passed a resolution opposing an Arizona Department of Education’s directive to remove teachers who speak English with “heavy accents” from some classrooms with Spanish-speaking students. The society said there’s no such thing as unaccented speech “because everyone’s speech is characterized by the pronunciation patterns of their dialects and styles within those dialects.”

The perception of an accent is more about the attitudes of the listener than the speaker, the resolution said.

The same could be said about the uproar over Ebonics; it’s more about the attitudes of listeners than the speakers.

(Marsha Mercer writes from Washington. You may contact her at

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Higher education no silver bullet -- Aug. 19, 2010 column


We’re No. 12. The United States has dropped from first in the world to twelfth in the percentage of young people with college degrees.

The problem isn’t that we’re sending fewer students to college. College enrollment in the United States is at an all-time high; 70 percent of those who graduated high school in 2009 were in college last fall. The problem is that other countries are pumping ever more students into their educational pipelines, particularly in science and math.

President Obama wants to raise the number of college grads by 8 million by 2020 “because America has to have the highest share of graduates compared to every other nation.”

But do we, really? It’s red, white and blue, but we should ask if we’re serving our people and our country well by simply churning out more of the same.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for a large, educated citizenry, but increasing the quantity of college graduates without improving quality won’t boost our national smarts or our global competitiveness.

Americans still want to believe education is the key to personal and national triumph, but a growing body of research and literature challenges that view. College-educated Americans still do better economically than those without college, but a degree no longer guarantees success or even employment.

And there are signs our schools need to do a better job teaching people to think critically. The latest Pew Research Center poll found nearly one in five Americans mistakenly believe Obama is a Muslim. In fact, the Obama’s-a-Muslim contingent is growing. The poll was taken before Obama’s remarks about a mosque on the World Trade Center site. People said the source of their information was TV.

Obama pledges to make sure that “every one of our young people has the best education that the world has to offer.” That’s hardly a novel notion from a president, but fine words still don’t butter the parsnips. He didn’t go into details on how he’d target funds to improve the quality of higher education.

We already spend about 2 ½ times more than the average of developed countries on higher education, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. U.S. education costs rose four times faster than inflation over the last 25 years and twice as fast as our health care costs.

It’s easy to burn a thousand dollars a week on tuition, room and board at a private college or university. Financial aid helps, of course, and state schools are a better bargain. Nevertheless, many students graduate with $100,000 in student loan debt only to find that a college degree isn’t a silver bullet.

Scholars at the Brookings Institution studied economic mobility and found that education tends to reinforce, rather than compensate for, the differences associated with family background.

“Strikingly, children from low-income families with a college education are no more likely to reach the top of the income ladder than children from high-income families without a college education,” Ron Haskins wrote in “Getting Ahead or Losing Ground: Economic Mobility in America.”

Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, authors of the new book, “Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids – And What We Can Do About It,” suggest that colleges are padding their staffs and are building luxury facilities that would be more appropriate for country clubs.
Full-time professors teach fewer undergrads and poorly paid adjuncts are teaching more students, the authors note. (I’ve taught as a college adjunct instructor, and my father was a university professor.)

Hacker and Dreifus cite Williams College in Massachusetts for having as many administrators to students as teachers to students. More than 70 percent of employees at the college do something other than teach. With about 2,000 students, Williams has 84 coaches on staff and 73 fundraisers, Hacker and Dreifus write.

Students don’t escape blame either. Several studies have found college students study less than they did decades ago -- but expect better grades.

College students in 1961 studied 24 hours a week while students in 2003 studied just 14 hours a week, Philip Babcock and Mindy Parks wrote in a study for the American Enterprise Institute.

The shorter study time stemmed not from students being pressed for time from working part-time – although they do have jobs. Nor was it because they picked less demanding majors or because they saved time with computers.

No, the authors said, the most plausible explanation for the decline in time spent studying is that academic standards have fallen.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Obama, college, higher education, spending, academic standards, students, time studying

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Politics and the 14th Amendment -- Aug. 12, 2010 column


To hear Senate Republicans, pregnant women around the world can’t hop on planes fast enough to get to the United States to give birth. Their babies then become instant American citizens, thanks to the 14th Amendment.

This is a problem, the men say. Here’s Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.: “I’m not sure exactly what the drafters of the (14th) amendment had in mind, but I doubt that it was somebody could fly in from Brazil and have a child and fly back home with that child, and that child is forever an American citizen.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., raised the specter of rich foreign women going to resorts to “drop” their babies on American soil.

“You come to a resort, you have your child at a hospital within the resort [and] that child is an American citizen,” Graham said in an interview with Fox News. And then there are the “thousands of people coming across the Arizona-Texas border for the express purpose of having a child in an American hospital so the child will become an American citizen,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have suggested it’s time to reconsider the wisdom of the 14th Amendment, which was adopted in 1868 to ensure that freed slaves and their descendants had full rights and protections as citizens.

“I think we ought to take a look at it – hold hearings, listen to the experts on it,” McConnell told The Hill newspaper.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for a change in birthright citizenship, however. What’s going on here is more politics than policy.

The situation is not exactly as the politicians present it. Imagine that in an election year.

A new Pew Hispanic Center study did find that 8 percent of newborns in the United States in 2008 had at least one parent who was an illegal immigrant, a statistic that is sure to inflame anti-immigration sentiments.

But the report’s analysis, which was based on Census Bureau figures, also said that 80 percent of the mothers had lived in this country for more than a year, and more than half had lived here five years or longer.

Despite all the rhetoric, nobody expects a serious run at the 14th Amendment, the salient part of which reads: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States…”

And yet, GOP candidates seem intent on outdoing each other to prove their toughness on the issue. A Republican gubernatorial candidate in Wyoming, Rita Meyer, even wants to see the children of illegal aliens deported along with their parents.

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to favor tougher immigration laws, but even among Republicans there’s no great groundswell of public opinion for changing the 14th Amendment.

Measures to do so previously have failed in Congress. There’s a dispute over whether ending birthright citizenship requires amending the Constitution, but passing an amendment is very difficult. It requires a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate and ratification by three-fourths of state legislatures.

Several public opinion surveys have asked if the Constitution should be amended to bar citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants, and overall responses split about 50-50. Republicans are warmer to the idea than Democrats, but they are not overwhelming.

What’s more significant than the party divide is that people under 50 view the country very differently than their elders.

Younger people are far less inclined to change the Constitution to end birthright citizenship than older people. Only 30 percent of those 18 to 29 favored a constitutional change to end birthright citizenship. Slightly more, 38 percent, of people 30 to 49 favored a constitutional change. Among people 50 to 64 and over 65, though, roughly half supported the change, according to Pew.

Similarly, younger people are less supportive of Arizona’s immigration law than older Americans, polls have found.

Differences in attitude are understandable, given the country’s demographics. While Hispanics are 34 percent of the general population, they make up only 7 percent of the population over 65. The Census Bureau projects that Hispanics will be 20 percent of the elderly population in 2050.

The country’s attitude toward immigrants evolves with each new citizen born.

© Marsha Mercer 2010. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Soak the rich? Not now -- Aug. 5, 2010 column


During the 2008 campaign, three little words summarized the Democrats’ plan for George W. Bush’s expiring tax cuts: Soak the rich.

Candidate Obama promised to keep lower tax rates for middle-class Americans while raising taxes on families making more than $250,000 a year. Life was simpler than.

President Obama remains firm on letting the tax cuts expire for the wealthiest taxpayers Dec. 31, but some Democrats, along with congressional Republicans, are balking.

A spirited tax debate on Capitol Hill likely will commence next month, just as midterm campaigning hits its stride.

In this election year, with most Americans less than confident about the economy, raising taxes is hardly a way to win votes. But if Congress does nothing, taxes on personal income, dividends and capital gains, and estates will rise to 2001 levels come January.

So, get ready for some fancy rhetorical flourishes as politicians in both parties explain why raising anyone’s taxes – even the richest among us – would be a huge mistake.

Once again, blame the economy.

“I don’t care if it’s the wealthiest of the wealthy, you don’t raise their taxes” during a recession, Rep. Bobby Bright, D-Ala., told The Hill newspaper. Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., also a freshman, said that the economic recovery is so fragile, tax rates should remain where they are.

“People in the upper tax brackets have a huge impact, a disproportionate impact, on consumer spending,” Connolly told The Hill.

A sleeping issue is the estate tax. The United States has had an inheritance tax since 1916, but the Bush plan began phasing out the estate tax in 2003 and repealed it for 2010. This year, billionaires can die and their estates pay no estate tax. If Congress does nothing, though, in 2011 the tax is scheduled to return to 2001 levels. Estates over $1 million would face a 55 percent tax rate.

Obama favors restoring the estate tax to 2009 levels, which would mean a 45 percent tax on inheritances of more than $3.5 million for individuals and $7 million for couples.

Republicans have long smelled political opportunity in the so-called death tax. A recent attempt by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., to repeal it failed when only two Democrats backed repeal.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and many other Democrats still favor letting the tax cuts expire. Some Democrats though want to delay pulling the plug until after Obama has run for re-election in 2012.

Others have suddenly discovered that their wealthy constituents already face a high tax burden. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-NY, supports letting the tax cuts expire, but he and several other New York City area representatives want to shield their voters from the consequences by requiring the IRS “to adjust tax brackets proportionally in regions where the average cost of living is higher than the national average.”

“The reality is that a dollar in New York isn’t worth nearly as much as a dollar in Spokane or Knoxville or Topeka,” Nadler said. The Wall Street Journal mocked him editorially, saying “the bill is called the Tax Equity Act, but a more acurate title would be the Blue State Tax Preference Act.”

Republicans have hypocrisy of their own to explain. They just fought extending unemployment benefits on grounds it would add to the ballooning deficit. Now, they say it’s fine to retain income tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent, even though that would cost nearly $700 billion in lost tax revenue over 10 years.

They also argue that repealing the tax cuts would harm small businesses. Not so, says Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, who has taken the lead in refuting the Republicans on tax cuts.

Geithner called the GOP claim “a political argument masquerading as substance.” Fewer than 3 percent of small businesses would be affected, he said.

“There is no credible argument to be made that the purpose of government is to borrow from future generations of Americans to finance an extension of tax cuts for the top 2 percent,” Geithner said in a speech at the Center for American Progress.

Economists disagree over the effects of raising taxes. The rich haven’t been spending enough as it is to boost the economy, some argue. Others say raising rich people’s taxes won’t lead to higher tax revenues anyway.

That’s because one thing doesn’t change. The rich have the resources to avoid getting soaked.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.