Friday, 20 March 2009

Number 8) College Completion Incentive Fund

A great deal of time and money has been spent over the years trying to encourage more young people, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds, to attend a four year university. On the whole, these efforts have been fairly successful - yet the proportion of you people with a college degree is much lower for my generation than for the generations before. How can this be true? Well, the simple answer is that an unacceptably high percentage of the people who start college drop out without finishing.

Just 54 percent of students entering four-year colleges in 1997 had a degree six years later — and even fewer Hispanics and blacks did, according to some of the latest government figures. After borrowing for school but failing to graduate, many of those students may be worse off than if they had never attended college at all.
Children from poorer families are more likely to drop out, as are minority children. However, drop out rates do not appear to be predestined - some colleges do a good job of keeping these kids in through their degree, others don't.

In his State of the Union Address, Obama's big "let's go to the moon" moment was a pledge that, "By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. That is a goal we can meet." Curently, we are 12th on this metric if you include adults from 25-34 with either a batchelors or associates degree (we do better if you include everyone up to the age of 64, but that's because other countries were further behind us then - they've recently caught up and surpassed us).

Obama's budget creates a $2.5 Billion Completion Incentive Fund to allow colleges to adopt the techniquest that have been successful at high-graduation schools.

Why does this matter? Well, leaving aside the social justice argument that poorer kids should have more chances to raise themselves up than they currently have, this program fulfills a very practical need: we aren't producing enough doctors, teachers, scientists or engineers to meet the countries needs today, let alone for the future. If this money can help even a fraction of the 46% of students who don't graduate to actually complete their degrees, it will buy us a downpayment on that future. Money well spent.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Number 9) Improved treatment for mental illness among the military

It's no secret that in recent years, our service men and women have been called upon to serve in deeply traumatic conditions. Instances of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder amongst the military are drastically on the rise, and treatment for it has not increased to meet the need.

An extraordinary story in the New Yorker late last year (read the whole thing!) put the problem into perspective for me:

Compared with other American wars, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to be producing victims at a high rate. A recent RAND Corporation study estimated that three hundred thousand veterans of America’s post-9/11 wars—nearly twenty per cent of those who have served—are suffering from P.T.S.D. or major depression, and many more cases are expected to surface in the years ahead. This elevated rate is generally attributed to the rigors of a long war being fought without conscription: multiple deployments and heavy use of National Guard and reserve units. And on the ground, at unit level, the discouragement of anyone with stress symptoms from asking for help is intense. The same RAND study found that, mainly because of the stigma still attached to P.T.S.D., only half of those afflicted have sought treatment.
The suicide rate among veterans and active-duty military personnel has been rising as well. The number of soldiers who killed themselves last year was the highest since the Army began keeping records, in 1980. When Dr. Ira Katz, the Department of Veterans Affairs chief of mental services, learned earlier this year that preliminary internal reports suggested that a thousand veterans in V.A. care were attempting suicide each month, he sent a colleague an e-mail saying, “Shh! . . . Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before somebody stumbles on it?” Another e-mail, written in March, 2008, by Dr. Norma J. Perez, a P.T.S.D. program co√∂rdinator in Texas, said, “Given that we are having more and more compensation seeking veterans, I’d like to suggest that you refrain from giving a diagnosis of PTSD straight out.”

These men and women aren't just a danger to themselves as suicide risks - left untreated they are also a danger to the communities they return to. But with the programs that manage this problem overstretched, and a strong stigma associated with mental illness, thousands of people aren't getting the help they need. In this study, only 27% or people who showed symptoms of having a problem were getting any help

No matter what you think of the wars in Iraq and Afganistan, the people who fought in them deserve better than this callous indifference.

Obama's budget will increase funding for PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and psychological disorders. It will create a tracking system for TBI with a single designated point of responsibility. It will add extra mental health professionals stationed directly with the troops capable of identifying and treating at risk individuals. And it will fund the National Intrepid Center of Excellence for psychological health and traumatic brain injury, which is due to open this year and which will be a cutting edge research and educational facility leading on these issues.

This funding will create jobs, protect our military and save lives. Money well spent.

Number 10) Rural Broadband Investment

I'm concerned that as President Obama tries to pass his budget, there are going to be a lot of people attacking him for doing things that I think need to be done. So, stealing a page from John McCain's inaccurate and unserious "top ten" twittering, here are ten things in Obama's budget that make me hopeful about our future.

The first one comes from the budget for the Department of Agriculture, and it's about $1.3Billion in loans and grants for rural broadband infrastructure. At this point, I'm sure someone somewhere is making a stupid joke about online porn. Let's allow the snickering at the back of the class to die down before we continue. Ready now?

Fine. This particular investment is not only necessary - it's long overdue. Manufacturing jobs are dying out and farming jobs are on the decline. As a result of these and other factors (poor access to healthcare and education among them), rural communities tend to be more poor than suburban or urban communities. They also lag behind in access to broadband internet. To attract and create new jobs to these areas, we will need not create fundamental infrastructures that put these areas within reach. A fast internet connection has long since stopped being a "Nice to have" for small businesses and start ups - it is essential. But it is simply not commercially viable for the market to supply this - creating broadband capacity is expensive and there aren't enough people in these areas to make it worth the while of commercial enterprises.

What's more, it may surprise you to know that it isn't just rural areas that have fallen behind the times. The US in international comparison has a much lower broadband capacity than other first world nations.

Stop and think about that for a second. We all know that traditional industries, like manufacturing, are being increasingly outsourced to third world countries that cand do them better. Our consolation has been that the US can lead in the cutting edge, information age businesses that will lead the future.

But according to the chart above, we have less broadband access and we pay more for it. $1.3 Billion of this year's budget is aimed at helping to bring us up to speed in this area. Money well spent.

Make sure your friends and family know - this budget isn't perfect. But it's important.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Obama: "Here's my guidance to you. Protect health care."

You should really read the excellent inside peak at the Obama White House just published in the New Republic. It's the story of how Health Care became a major priority of the President's budget, and what it demonstrates is that against some significant resistance from trusted advisors, Obama has been personally pushing for this since early on. In addition to the quote in the subject head above, I was very struck by this bit:

Obama's political strategists advised him to soft-pedal the topic. One of them was David Axelrod. Although personally acquainted with the flaws in our health care system because of his disabled daughter, he also understood public opinion: The middle-class voters whose support politicians covet were worried about the cost of insurance, but their enthusiasm for universal coverage seemed shallow. Obama, though, always insisted on keeping health care prominent in the election. "He said, 'I want to do health care as president,'" one senior adviser paraphrased, "'and I can't do health care if I don't talk about it during the campaign.'"
Wow. Strategy + tactics.

Happy St. Patrick's Day (OK, I'm late. So Sue Me)

Yesterday, Michelle Obama decided to celebrate St in Pat's in the tradtional way. The traditional Chicago way, that is. You may have heard Chicago they dye the river green on this most festive of occassions. Yesterday, the White House fountain took on the same hue.

But I'm really just posting this to remind you all of my favorite Irish Folk song to be written during the campaign:

Favorite lines:

Oh he's in the White House. He took his chance.
Now let's see Barack do Riverdance.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Twitter and Google and Meet Up and....

This is just a quick housekeeping post to remind all my new readers (hello new readers!) that this blog is part of an extended Obama London family of online activity.
  • First off, yes - I am on Twitter. My Twitter name is KarinJR. You can find me here, should you be so minded.
  • We also have an Obama London MeetUp Group - it's open to all, but some events that we list are Democrats Abroad events and therefore by necessity are for US citizens only. Find us here:
  • There is also the Obama London Google Group (if you prefer it - this group tends to get the same info that goes to the MeetUp, and I find MeetUp a bit easier to handle) here:
  • And finally, if you ARE a US Citizen and have not done so yet, make sure you join Democrats Abroad. DA is the official party organisation for the Democrats overseas, and is a great source for events, info and voting help. And I'm not just saying that because I'm UK Vice Chair (the opposite in fact):

Monday, 16 March 2009

RIP Ron Silver

Actor and political activist Ron Silver died yesterday. Silver was an interesting and smart man - a fervent liberal who became more conservative after the events of Sept 11 and wound up supporting both the Iraq war and President Bush's 2004 re-election. Obviously, I disagreed with him on both points!

But I did have the chance to see Silver at an event last year in the House of Commons, and I have to say he struck me as sincere, thoughtful and very intelligent. We chatted briefly after the event and he told me that he had mixed feelings about Obama, but thought he would almost certainly win (according to his obituaries, it looks like he wound up voting for him).

Silver was clearly a complicated guy. Socially very progressive but positively militiaristic on foreign policy, he didn't really fit in anywhere. Still, he was a great actor, and if he did nothing else in his life I'd still consider it a life well-lived just for Bruno Gianelli:

The Internet for Activists

So I was invited to speak this weekend at a conference called "The Internet for Activists." They were looking for examples of succes stories - online activism that achieve a real world result - and they thought the Obama campaign might be a fair example of that. All right then.

Digging into the organisers a little bit, I found that they were a collection of decidedly left of centre activists, ranging from the Marxist wing of the Labour party, to the Respect party, to one guy there who just thinks "no matter who you vote for, the government always wins" and therefore seems to eschew politics altogether. They were, in short, not from the "sensible centre" of British politics. Which is fine by me. Personally, I respect anyone who gives their time and effort to making the world closer to their vision of a good place to live. In America especially, the lunatic right has a strong voice whereas anyone further left than John Edwards practically doesn't exist in the public debate (Dennis Kucinich and Michael Moore being the exceptions that prove the rule). So I've got no problem with someone whose views are further left than mine working for their causes - to the contrary, I think a more balanced public debate, with the extremes on both side getting a reasonably hearing, will recalibrate the political discussion in a helpful way - the choice between far right, right, center right and center left isn't exactly a balanced range of options, is it?

But what I often DO get frustrated by in leftist activists is a certain self-absorbed self riteousness that seems to congratule itself on it's purity of thought rather than doing the hard work of actually persuading others to that point of view.

So in speaking at this event, there were a few things I wanted to achieve. I was certainly curious to meet the people - and there were some interesting folks there, for sure. Also a couple of jerks (I will not be blogging about the Masked Man from Anonymous, though he was indeed a jerk, because 1) I think he wants the attention and 2) apart from being online bullies I don't think they count as actual activists). But mainly I met well meaning folks, including some interesting bloggers.

I did want to respond to one speaker, though, who summed up his presentation with a small dig at the Obama campaign, arguing that they were "not an activist-led" campaign, and essentially that we shouldn't emulate their model because we should be striving for "more activist-led campaigns". Being a bit slow on the uptake, I sat there going, "huh?" and missed my chance to respond to this. Mainly because I couldn't initially work out what on earth he was arguing.

Obama himself definitely came from the activist tradition - local community organising is the purest form of direct activism I know. Barack first came to public attention by speaking at an anti-war rally, for heavens sake! Surely this is the sterotypical vision of an activist, yes?

And the other campaign leaders, David Plouffe, David Axelrod et. al. were far from insidery types - Axelrod actually got his start as a campaigning journalist in Chicaco, and Plouffe developed a campaign plan that was based to an unprecedented degree on building local grassroots organisation and keeping our core supporters fired up and active.

And certainly on grassroots level, it was activist led by definition, right? All these hundreds of thousands of Americans, young and old who gave up their evenings and weekends or even in some cases their jobs to work for no pay in support of a common goal - thousands of people who had never been active before. Thousands more for whom the Democratic party in the past had been too far right, or left, but who believed under Barack it could be just right. Millions of people who gave money, small and large, even in tough economic times, because they believed it was an investment in their future. These people aren't activists?

Only after the conference did I have my big, "well duh" moment and realise: No. To him, these people are not activists. He, and I'm sorry to say a lot of other people in the room, seem to give credit for genuine community spirit only to people who already think and act exactly like them. Mainstream political organising isn't activism. The community organising that Barack did in Chicago wasn't activism. All those previously non-political people who got inspired by Barack and spent months of their lives traipsing through rain and snow for him - that didn't make them activists.

I think it's the worst kind of snobbery. And, worse, I think it guarantees failure.

By definition, if you're a left of center activist, the majority does not already agree with you. Spending all your days talking only to the people exactly like you and looking down your nose at everyone else as philosophically impure isn't going to achieve a damn thing. So if you really care about what you claim to believe in, you're going to have to haul yourself out of your comfy little world and start formulating arguments.

The analogy that I oh-so-gently made in my presentation was to the underpants gnomes.

You know about he underpants gnomes, right?

No? Well, in short - they steal people's underwear in a scheme to get rich.

Their business plan is as follows:

Phase 1: Collect Underpants
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Profit!

Activists, I would urge, should work on their phase 2 planning. Lots of protests have a business plan somewhat similar to this. For example, let's say you are trying to end the war. You decide to hold a protest. Does your action plan resemble this?

Phase 1: Gather lots of people for a protest.
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Peace!

If you don't have a phase 2, you're just playing self gratifying games. And that's not an activist led campaign.