Tag Archives: National News

The Grass is Not Always Greener: Tex-Mex Fears

16 Nov

The fierce yin and yang of America’s divergent relationship with its two borders is embodied in two provincial border cities: Buffalo in the north, and El Paso in the south. Here our concerns are greater engagement with Canada, the easing of border restrictions, developing an economic plan to build off bi-national trade. Here our elected officials (the incoming county executive, for instance) call for using the border as a business engine. Here we regularly cross north for weekends in Toronto and chinese food.

There, in El Paso, the prime concern is safety from Mexico, enforcing strict border restrictions, and shutting down the most profitable of cross border trades (mules carrying drugs, guns and workers). There elected officials call for ranchers to arm themselves from spillover violence among and between drug cartels and federales. There vacation cross border traffic stopped a long time ago.

The last time I wrote about El Paso after a visit, I said the smell of burning garbage, intense desert heat, and sounds of gunfire in the distance reminded me of Iraq. Last week I returned again, but as we stayed in a hotel north of the city and further from the border, I didn’t get any unwanted flashbacks this time.

While I was there I heard news of a poll, asking Texans to rank the top challenges for Texas and the country as a whole. Like much of the rest of the country, Texans rank “the economy” as the United States’ chief concern. But locally, they are more worried about “immigration.” While to us Blue State northerners this may conjure images of xenophobic Red State racists, talking to actual Texans (not surprisingly) yields a far more nuanced picture. New York may envy Texas’ economic engine, but certainly not the border issues. 

In places like El Paso and Laredo and Corpus Christi, large Latino populations predate the United States or State of Texas; the border moved, not the people. With families split by the river and an open relationship between the two countries, people and goods moved back and forth unofficially, under the radar, but mainly peacefully. A rancher I spoke to, who grew up in south west Texas, remembers fondly the days of mutually positive relationships between land owners and migrant workers; days that are now as far away as the old timer’s childhoods.

That less-than-legal but tacitly-accepted easy relationship has been replaced by fear and anger. Not fear of “immigrants,” and the jobs they may take or strain they put on social services (Texas is not California), but fear of violence: murders and kidnapping. The anger is almost exclusively reserved for the Obama administration, perceived as ineffectual at best, and purposely and dangerously ignorant at worst.

First, the situation. Some 40,000 odd people have died in Mexico since 2006 as a result of the war between various drug cartel factions and the Mexican government. In the last year, the violence has increased in both volume and scope: more deaths than ever, and more gruesome methods (car bombs, chainsaw beheadings (I’m not linking to it), targeting of social media reporters). To Texans, this violence is not academic – the majority is happening a couple of miles away, especially on the border town of Ciudad Juarez, and is crossing the border in under-reported ways. The reported murder rate for Americans in Mexico is up 300%, but that figure only includes voluntary reports to the State Department, not reports from Mexican officials. American gangs are increasingly linked to Mexican cartels. Locals will tell you that while the vast vast majority of bodies are found on the Mexican side of the border, the general suspicion is that at least some are killed here and dumped there.

In response to this trend, Texan and federal government officials have mostly squabbled. Texan politicians feel like the feds aren’t taking the situation seriously, as evidenced by President Obama denying a meeting on the issue with Governor Perry. In Washington, officials are uneasy about the scope of the response already: fences and border patrol and deployed national guard. When the Obama Administration does act, it does so incompetently – a major story down south (and mostly ignored this far north) is the bungling of FBI/ATF Operation Fast and Furious. That firearm sting operation sent 2000 functioning and untracked weapons to Mexico, 1400 of which are unaccounted for. When locals take efforts into their own hands, tragic mistakes inevitably follow.

Fear and anger. Beneath the failed Birther rhetoric that creeps into the vocal frustration is a basic human fear of violence. Fear for one’s family. Fear of a way of life taken, not by economic force but physical force. Anger that a Border Patrol agent was killed by an errant gun from the Fast and Furious operation, and no one in the federal government (especially AG Holder) has taken responsibility. Frustration that a war is happening a mile or two away and the rest of the country doesn’t know or care. STRATFOR, the Austin-based private global intel company, has declared Mexico is nearing failed state status. Is anyone paying attention?

The National Debt, Srsly

6 Jul

Washington is debt crazy. But in modern, polarized and uber-politicized 2011, crazy means incoherent brinksmanship. Let me try to add a bit of sanity and food-for-thought to your grey matter as you try to make sense of the current fiasco involving the extension of the debt ceiling.

1) Don’t wish for compromise. Compromise and “bi-partisanship” is what got us in this mess (“this mess” being $14 trillion in total federal debt, $8 Trillion of which has come in the last 11 years, $4.5 Trillion in the last three). Bi-partisanship means Republicans get tax breaks and President Obama gets stimulus programs and the total debt get keeps going up. In an interview that starkly laid out the two sides, Tom Ashbrook of On Point on NPR talked with veteran Congressman Jim Clyburn (D-GA) about the way forward. His answer? We’ve always worked it out before and we need to do so again. Wrong. Working it out as before will make the problem worse. Our country is bad at solving big spending problems. Don’t fix it like before. Fix it a new way. If you are going to wish for something, long-suffering citizen, wish for a lightning bolt of rational planning and decision making to leap from the sky. If that sounds unlikely, then you get the idea.

2) Ignore anyone from either party that says the federal debt is like household debt. If citizens or businesses have to balance their books, then its “common sense” that so should the federal government, and the US government needs to “stop putting things on the credit card.” While Clyburn uses the last argument, Republicans are usually guilty of the former, especially Congressman Jim Jordan (R-OH) on the NPR program noted above. Its a load of bollocks. Managing a national economy, defending the nation, making wise targeted investments, meddling in overseeing education, running social service program ad nauseum is a little more complicated than a mortgage and car payment, and there are legitimate (though few) reasons to borrow. More on that in a second.

3) Ignore the China argument. We’re not overly putting our security at risk by borrowing from China – we have their money, and the stuff we bought with it. They have a slip of paper. The worth of those slips of paper is directly related to the strength of our economy. The oligarchs who run China need the US to be strong at least as much as we do. We need to stop borrowing so much, but not because of China.

4) Clamping down the debt ceiling is not a political gimmick or trick. Republicans are not gaming the system or using some obscure parliamentary law to derail the system. They have “discovered” the third step in the funding process. First, Congress Authorizes an agency to spend a certain amount of money on a certain program. Then they Appropriate the funding to the agency, never more than the initial Authorization, and often lower. Then, in all of modern history, Congress votes to raise the debt ceiling to allow borrowing of sufficient funds to meet the Appropriation. Congress has FAILed at controlling themselves in the first two steps, but nearly always considered the third a formality. It is no crime to introduce rigor and provide an opportunity for redirection. However, that leads us to . . .

5) Republicans are about to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Prior to the 2010 election, President Obama was a stimulator, and the conventional wisdom agreed that significant borrowing was required to pull the country out of the Great Recession. Eighteen months later, with the two year old “recovery” yielding record corporate profits, wage stagnation and perhaps systemic high unemployment, President Obama is Deficit Cutter-in-Chief. Republicans successfully changed the conversation from stimulus to debt reduction, and are on the cusp of the “deal of the century,” to quote David Brooks. Now is not the time for tax policy puritanism. An honest discussion of revenues would examine the amount of money the federal government brings in from taxes, not the tax rate itself. Revenues are at 60 year lows, 15% of total economic output instead of the traditional %18, and $500 billion below their peak. Contrary to popular wisdom on both the Democratic and Republican sides, this is mostly due to the economy, not tax policy. Revenues peaked during the boom following (chronologically only) the Bush tax cuts. However, continued tax cutting since has hardly provided a spike to revenues or the economy. Republicans need to catch up with the times – even conservatives economists and experts are finally admitting tax cuts aren’t a cure-all for economic development. Republicans cannot, and should not, be taken seriously about their concern for the federal debt until they endorse increased taxes or reduced subsidies on someone, anyone, somewhere at some time. The initial thirty year old Reagan conservative idea of generally reducing taxes has morphed into an inflexible, irrational, extreme article of faith. Its like some quasi-religious telephone game – after cycling through eight series of Presidential elections, Reagan’s plan to reduce the top marginal rate from 70-ish% has yielded a packed stage at a recent CNN Republican debate where no one would raise a tax anywhere for any reason. As long as Republicans hold out on taxes, Democrats can accurately accuse them of gamesmanship and an utter lack of seriousness, and we stay stagnated. But bend on taxes, and the lack of any real independent competing Democratic plan is instantly unveiled. Will Republicans seize the opportunity? David Brooks, once again, lays out the scathing case for why they won’t.

6) If you are still wondering what the big deal with the debt is at all, ask yourself this question: under what circumstances is it moral and/or ethical to borrow money from your grandchildren? To invest in their future? To secure and defend the country for their safety? To allow their eventual prosperity? Compare those options, and your own answers, to our actual spending now. We’re borrowing to invest not in the future, but the past. We’re spending half our federal budget on social security and Medicare. We’re spending another third on military excursions and interest on the debt. We’re spending a pittance on research, development, education, infrastructure or any other program that could reasonably be called an investment. In other words, we’re borrowing from the future to maintain our (probably unsustainable) quality of life today. The first step in balancing the moral imperatives of providing what was (unreasonably) promised the elderly in their dotage and investing in our children and future is admitting how lopsided the ledger currently is, and where our borrowed dollars are currently flowing. . . even before the Baby Boomers really start retiring en masse.