Thursday, October 25, 2012

A swing voter explains his switch to Romney -- Oct. 25, 2012 column

If Mitt Romney wins the White House, he can thank voters like Dayle Mauck of Fredericksburg, Va.
Mauck, 57, is a swing voter in a key battleground state. He voted for Barack Obama four years ago, but he’s backing Romney Nov. 6.
“My theory is Obama is a good man and he means well, but he and Congress just butt heads,” Mauck told me. “Romney has been in business. He knows what it’s like. I’m looking for who can get the economy rolling again.”
Political commentators toss around the slogan “it’s the economy.” Voters like Mauck live with it every day, and it’s not pretty. He’s a home builder -- or was -- until the recession hit.  Today he’s a home improvement contractor, waiting and hoping for a turnaround. 
“Four years ago, I had 40 employees; now I have one. Four years ago, I had an office; now it’s in my home. I love to build houses,” he said as he took a break from updating my bath. “I don’t mind home improvement, but I love to build houses.”
Mauck prospered during the housing boom – building 15 or 20 houses a year and doing framing contract work for larger builders. He was able to pay his two sons’ way through college. But he also knew the crazy-good times couldn’t last. He recalls a day when 17 clients sat in a sales office in Fredericksburg, all ready to buy townhouses.
When the bottom dropped out of the housing market, he had to tell his sons, “You’re on your own. Get a loan.” 
 “I’m a construction worker. I’m not a tech person,” he said. “And there are a lot of guys like me out here. A ton of them are out of business and the rest are just hanging on and hoping the economy comes back.”
After 40 years in construction, Mauck is no stranger to economic downturns. When recession hit in the 1980s, he grabbed his tools and headed to Alaska for a few months. After that, he figured the Washington area was recession-proof but, he says, he was wrong. 
White men without college degrees like Mauck back Romney over Obama  65 percent to 32 percent, according to the latest ABC News-Washington Post poll. Pollsters say this group more than any other has propelled Romney into a tight race with Obama on handling the economy.
 “Those billions and billions in stimulus – they didn’t do anything as far as I can tell,” said Mauck, who thinks a billion or two should have gone to buy down mortgages so people could have stayed in their homes.  
No fan of either political party, Mauck is an independent.  Almost four in 10 voters now say they’re independents, up from 32 percent in 2008 and 30 percent in 2004. Self-described Democrats are 32 percent of the electorate, and self-described Republicans are 24 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.
But many who call say they’re independents vote the same party nearly every election. Mauck isn’t like that.
He gave his first presidential vote to Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976, voted twice for Republican Ronald Reagan and then for George H. W. Bush.  In 1992, Mauck thought Bill Clinton “the best and the brightest” and voted Democratic. In 1996, he went with Republican Bob Dole. In 2000, he voted for Democrat Al Gore and in 2004 for Republican George W. Bush.  
Four years ago, Mauck and his wife Tana, an elementary school teacher, helped Barack Obama win Virginia and the White House. This time they’ll cancel out each other’s votes. Tana Mauck is sticking with Obama.
His friends at the Moose Lodge give him a hard time about voting for Obama, so “I just don’t mix politics and beer,” Dayle Mauck said.
He wishes he could still have good-natured political arguments, but when he and his buddies pile into his truck to go hunting, he has one rule -- “no politics and no religion.”
And what does he make of the charge that Romney is so rich he can’t possibly understand the problems of people like Dayle Mauck?  
“I never knew a poor guy to give a man a job,” he said, with a hint of a smile.
© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Poverty: costly, forgotten and worse than ever -- Oct. 18, 2012


In July 2007, candidate Barack Obama stood in a poor Washington neighborhood and quoted Bobby Kennedy on poverty in America.

“How can a country like this allow it?” Kennedy asked in the Mississippi Delta that day in 1967. Obama echoed the question in Anacostia four decades later.

“We can’t afford to lose a generation of tomorrow’s doctors and scientists and teachers to poverty,” Obama said. “We can make excuses for it or we can fight about it or we can ignore poverty altogether, but as long as it’s here it will always be a betrayal of the ideals we hold as Americans. It’s not who we are.”

Some War on Poverty programs were ineffective, Obama conceded, but it was wrong to conclude there was no role for the federal government in fighting poverty. The government can make a difference with programs like school lunch and prenatal care, he said.

And there was stick with the carrot.

“It makes a difference when a father realizes that responsibility does not end at conception; when he understands that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise one,” Obama said. “It makes a difference when a parent turns off the TV once in awhile, puts away the video games and starts reading to their child, and getting involved in their education.”

People love mild scolding, especially if it’s directed at someone else. Last time around, people loved the candidate Obama who they thought would bridge the gaps between Democrats and Republicans.

Five-plus years after Obama’s Anacostia speech, both President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney have largely ignored poverty in their presidential campaigns. We hear a lot about the 1 percent, the 47 percent and even, lately, the 100 percent. But the 15 percent who live in poverty? Almost never.

Romney mentioned the rise in poverty under Obama’s watch in the last debate but offered no specific plan for tackling poverty. Obama was silent on the subject.

Even if people were begging the White House and Congress to do more for the poor – they are not -- Washington knows only how to turn the spigot on and off. But spending alone, like words, won’t end poverty.

Wouldn’t it be great if someone could come up with a few rules young people could follow to nearly guarantee a life free of poverty?

Trick question. Yes, it would be great, and, yes, the rules do exist.

Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution studied poverty and Census data and came up with three rules to avoid poverty. Here they are:

One, finish high school.

Two, work full time.

Three, wait until age 21 and get married -- before having a baby.

That’s it. People who follow all three rules had only a 2 percent chance of being poor, Haskins told the Senate Finance Committee in June. But those who violate all three rules have a 77 percent chance of being poor.

People often think getting a job is the key to success, but in America, it’s very possible to work full time and still be poor. A single mother of two on her own who works full-time all year at the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, takes no vacations and no time off for sick days or to take care of sick kids, would earn $15,080 – about $2,500 below the poverty level for a mom with two kids, Haskins told the committee.

Our leaders need to do more to make it cool to stay in school, to work full-time and to wait to start families. It won’t be easy, but it would pay huge dividends.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Behind those jobless numbers -- Oct. 11, 2012 column


Back in 2003, an up-and-coming economics professor cried foul when the government reported a surprisingly low annual unemployment rate. It was 6 percent.

“The unemployment rate has been low only because government programs, especially Social Security disability, have effectively been buying people off the unemployment rolls and reclassifying them as ‘not in the labor force,’” Austan Goolsbee of the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business wrote in The New York Times.

“The government has cooked the books,” he declared.

Nine years later, Jack Welch and other critics of President Barack Obama jumped on Goolsbee’s “cooked the books” comment to bolster their attack on what the former CEO of General Electric called “unbelievable” September jobless numbers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the unemployment rate declined three-tenths of a point to 7.8 percent and non-farm employment increased by 114,000.

Goolsbee, who chaired Obama’s White House Council of Economic Advisers in 2010 and 2011, denies he was being partisan in 2003. His words were taken out of context, he says. He’s right.

His op-ed said government policy loosening eligibility for disability payments had created “invisible unemployment” that benefits both parties. He did not accuse the Bush administration of phonying the numbers the way Obama’s foes have accused him.

“The point is not whether every person on disability deserves payments,” Goolsbee wrote then. “The point is that in previous recessions these people would have been called unemployed. They would have filed for unemployment insurance. They would have shown up in the statistics. They would have helped create a more accurate picture of national unemployment, a crucial barometer we use to measure the performance of the economy, the likelihood of inflation and the state of the job market.”

Goolsbee’s point is even more relevant today than it was nine years ago. The Social Security disability program has grown by leaps and bounds and now consumes nearly 20 percent of the Social Security budget. It’s on track to become the first safety net program to exhaust its trust fund – in 2016.

Getting stuck on one month’s unemployment numbers is pure political theater. BLS stresses that one month can be a fluke and revises numbers all the time.

Does anyone think a 7.8 percent unemployment rate is something to cheer about? Not when 12.1 million people are officially unemployed and unemployment would be so much worse without the disability safety net.

The disability rolls have doubled over the last decade. There were 10.6 million disability beneficiaries at the end of last year, 8.6 million of whom were disabled workers. The rest were dependents. The average monthly disability payment was $960, and disability recipients qualify for Medicare after two years. The average age of a disability recipient is 53.

As the economy soured and workers lost jobs and couldn’t find new ones, applications for disability soared. Over the years, eligibility for disability has been expanded to include mental conditions and back pain.

Congress started the disability program in 1956 to provide payments to disabled workers – that is, those unable to engage in “a substantial gainful activity in the U.S. economy.”

At that time, employment and disability were seen as mutually exclusive states, David H. Autor and Mark G. Duggan wrote in a 2010 paper on disability reform for The Center for American Progress and The Hamilton Project. The definition still stands, even though the nature of work has changed dramatically.

The disability program provides “strong incentives to applicants and beneficiaries to remain permanently out of the labor force, and it provides no incentive to employers to implement cost-effective accommodations that enable employees with work limitations to remain on the job,” Autor and Duggan wrote.

To fix disability’s financial crisis, Congress is considering a range of unpalatable options: raise the payroll tax, tighten eligibility and lower benefits.

Many who receive disability payments would rather be earning a paycheck and feeling like productive members of society. With some help from employers, many could work.

Instead of arguing about the unemployment rate, our leaders need to find ways to encourage work in the 21st century for all Americans, including those with disabilities.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, October 4, 2012

Debating an 'October surprise' -- Oct. 4, 2012 column


We have an “October surprise,” and it’s Mitt Romney. He lives.

An October surprise is an unexpected event that could change the outcome of a presidential race. It’s premature to say Romney’s strong showing against President Barack Obama in the first presidential debate will alter the course of this election.

But Romney is not the dead man walking he seemed just a week ago.

Republicans are thrilled and Democrats chilled by the Denver debate. If Romney was the winner, who was the biggest loser?

Not Obama, who earned his party’s scorn for his lackluster performance, or even Big Bird, endangered as he’d be in a Romney administration. Romney said he’d cut PBS funding, even though he loves the Sesame Street character.

The biggest losers were TV viewers hungry for clarity on issues facing the country. They went to bed without supper.

Presidential debates are aimed at winning undecided or swing voters. About 6 percent of voters supposedly are still up for grabs. Their presidential decision got harder, not easier, after a debate that raised more questions than it answered. Romney and Obama batted erroneous facts and figures at each other like tennis balls.

Commentators across the political spectrum agreed that Romney shone and Obama stumbled Wednesday night. Point by point, Romney shed his image as Prince of the Remote Rich, coming across as smart, deft and worried about the middle class. Who knew?

Supposed front-runner Obama looked uncomfortable. It obviously has been a while since anyone questioned or challenged him up close. The next day, though, he was on the campaign trail, pounding Romney.

Analysts chewed endlessly on the night’s great bafflement: How could Obama go 90 minutes without once mentioning the magic words “47 percent,” the group of Americans Romney recently said feel they are victims, entitled to government handouts and will vote for Obama.

As surprising as it was to see an aggressive Romney take it to a defensive Obama, though, political theater won’t help anyone pay college tuition, find a job or cope with real life problems.

After the debate, fact checkers gloried in the wealth of inaccurate and untrue statements from both Obama and Romney.

“We found exaggerations and false claims flying thick and fast,” reported nonpartisan

“The debate was wonky without being especially honest,” the Washington Post editorialized.

Obama and Romney “spun one-sided stories in their first presidential debate, not necessarily bogus, but not the whole truth,” said the Associated Press.

Obama claimed that Romney has a plan to cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans by $5 trillion. Not so, Romney declared, insisting that he will curb tax breaks to make up the costs. He hasn’t said which ones.

Romney claimed Obama doubled the deficit. Fact checkers say he didn’t.

Obama claimed health care premiums have gone up more slowly than any time in the last 50 years. Nope, say fact checkers.

Viewers knew early that the ever-smiling Romney was on his game when he likened the president to a prevaricating lad.

“Look, I’ve got five boys. I’m used to people saying something that’s not always true, but just keep on repeating it and ultimately hoping I’ll believe it. But that is not the case, all right?” Romney said.

About Romney’s tax plan, Obama said, “For 18 months he’s been running on this tax plan. And now, five weeks before the election, he’s saying that his big, bold idea is `Never mind.’”

Romney, honed by a countless debates during the GOP primaries and extensively prepped, trotted out three- and four-point plans galore. Obama showed the rust of not debating in four years.

David Axelrod, a top Obama aide, said on MSNBC that Obama was trying to have a conversation with the American people and he was “treating the American people as adults.” Really?

Adults deserve – and should demand -- substance from their politicians. This election isn’t over. There’s time for policy details. The vice presidential debate is Thursday in Kentucky and the two remaining presidential debates are Oct. 16 and 22 in New York and Florida.

Stay tuned. October could bring more surprises.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.