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Washington State Politics

November 5, 2010 Leave a comment

Thanks to the Senate race between three-term Democratic incumbent Patty Murray and Republican challenger Dino Rossi, our state got a lot of attention this week. And thanks also to our vote-by-mail system, which ensures that vote counts drag on. The race was settled only yesterday afternoon, with Rossi conceding after 78% of the votes had been counted. The margin was only about 51 to 49 in Murray’s favor, but the margin was growing and evidently a demographic analysis made it clear that the race was all but settled.

Given how Democratic and liberal Washington State is perceived to be, it might seem surprising that the race was so close. But in fact Washington isn’t such a liberal Democratic state, as the map above might suggest, and as Jonathan Raban explained today in an excellent primer on Washington politics at the New York Review blog:

In the run-up to the election, I’ve seen Washington described by commentators as a blue state—“very blue,” “reliably blue,” “stark blue.” But it’s only by a series of electoral flukes in closely fought races that it has a Democratic governor (Christine Gregoire) and two Democratic senators (Murray and Maria Cantwell). Six of its nine members of Congress are—or were before the election—Democrats. These numbers mask a deep, and very nearly equal, tribal division between the rural and urban parts of the state.

Democrats inhabit the low shores of Puget Sound, mostly on its eastern side, in a ragged trail of port-cities that stretches from Bellingham, close to the Canadian border, through Everett, Seattle, and Tacoma, to Olympia, the state capital, at the southern end of the sound. In Seattle, our very liberal Democrat congressman, Jim McDermott, is being returned to D.C. for his twelfth term with a majority (so far) of 82 percent of the vote, which is a tad down from his 2008 figure. In fact, most of western Washington’s Democratic candidates for the House (four successful, one unsuccessful, and one yet to be decided) defended the administration’s record in their campaigns. But when you drive eastward over the Interstate 90 bridge that crosses the long and skinny Lake Washington, to Bellevue and beyond, you enter Republican territory, whose redness steadily deepens over the next three hundred miles to the Idaho border.

The north-south line of “the mountains,” meaning the Cascade Range, forty miles east of Seattle, is a rigid political frontier. On November 2, all twenty counties east of the mountains voted for Dino Rossi, while Patty Murray’s support was concentrated in the urban settlements on Puget Sound. As one crests Snoqualmie Pass on I-90, the whole character of Washington state changes before one’s eyes: abundant rainfall gives way to near-desert; ferns, salal, blackberry, and Douglas fir to sagebrush and stunted pinyon pine; high tech industries (Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon.com) to irrigated agriculture and cattle ranches. Median incomes drop, population density thins.

Another indication of the state’s not-so-liberal politics was the defeat by a 2-to-1 margin of Initiative 1098, which would have introduced an income tax for individuals earning more than $200,000 and couples earning more than $400,000, the revenue to go to education and social services.

It’s a complex state. But why would one expect otherwise?

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Categories: Politics

American Exceptionalism, Indentured Servitude

November 5, 2010 Leave a comment

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Harvesters, 1565 -- The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Marco Rubio, the newly elected, 39-year-old Florida senator, is receiving a lot of attention as a potential candidate for national office in 2012. See, for instance, this column from tomorrow’s Globe and Mail asking if he’s the Republican Obama. And he may also be the Republican Party’s most forceful voice of American exceptionalism, as exemplified by these remarks in his acceptance speech Tuesday night: “America is the single greatest nation in all of human history. A place without equal in the history of all mankind” because “almost every other place in the world…what you were going to be when you grow up was determined for you.”

Peter Beinart discussed this quote in a blog post at the Daily Beast two days ago, his comments serving as the starting point for a post by Daniel Larison that I’d like to quote from.

Republicans have made a defense of “American exceptionalism” the thing that is supposed to distinguish them from Obama, and in order to make that claim they have defined American exceptionalism to mean an absurd overconfidence in the political and economic uniqueness and supremacy of America. To take pride in economic opportunity available here, they feel that they must deny that it exists elsewhere. Lacking answers for, or even awareness of, the growing social and economic stratification in their own country, they project it to “almost every other place in the world.” Rubio’s CPAC speech in February marked him as one of the strongest advocates of this notion, which he repeated again in his victory speech last night. It didn’t matter to Rubio then that the U.S. actually lags behind a great many industrialized nations in terms of social mobility, and it still doesn’t matter. . . .

The sort of American exceptionalism that has become the defining feature of Republican rhetoric over at least the last two years seems to require “boasting of the largeness” of America at every turn. This is not healthy admiration for one’s country, but an idolatry that prevents its devotees from seeing things as they are. Last night greatly empowered that idolatry.

As for seeing things as they are, let’s turn to an interview two weeks ago with Joseph Stiglitz, the transcript of which is worth reading in full. (Hat tip: emptywheel.) Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize winning Columbia economist, gives an example late in the interview of how “the legal system has gotten very much out of whack, and which contributed to the financial crisis.” You must read this passage:

In 2005, we passed a bankruptcy reform. It was a reform pushed by the banks. It was designed to allow them to make bad loans to people to who didn’t understand what was going on, and then basically choke them. Squeeze them dry. And we should have called it, “the new indentured servitude law.” Because that’s what it did.

Let me just tell you how bad it is. I don’t think Americans understand how bad it is. It becomes really very difficult for individuals to discharge their debt. The basic principle in the past in America was people should have the right for a fresh start. People make mistakes. Especially when they’re preyed upon. And so you should be able to start afresh again. Get a clean slate. Pay what you can and start again. Now if you do it over and over again that’s a different thing. But at least when there are these lenders preying on you should be able to get a fresh start.

But they [the banks] said, “No, no, you can’t discharge your debt,” or you can’t discharge it very easily. They have a right, now, to take 25% of your before-tax income. Now imagine what that means. Let’s assume that you wound up, as it’s not that hard to do, with a debt equal to 100% of your income. You’re making $40,000, and your debt is $40,000. You have to turn over to the credit card company, to the bank, $10,000 of your before-tax income every year. But, the banks can now charge you 30% interest.

So what does that mean? At the end of the year, you’ve paid the bank $10,000, a quarter of your income. But what you owe the bank has gone from $40,000 to an even larger number because they’re charging you 30%. So you’re debt is larger. So the next year you have to give a quarter of your income again to the bank. And the year after. Until you die.

This is indentured servitude. And we criticize other countries for having indentured servitude of this kind, bonded labor. But in America we instituted this in 2005 with almost no discussion of the consequences. But what it did was encourage the banks to engage in even worse lending practices.

Hey, Marco, can you see this?

Categories: Economy, Law, Politics