Blow, Nocera and Collins

In “Santorum’s Gospel of Inequality” Mr. Blow points out that Rick Santorum is becoming increasingly unhinged in his public comments. Just look at some of the things he has said recently.  Mr. Nocera, in “Two Cheers for the Settlement,” says in the agreement made with the five biggest mortgage servicers, providing relief for homeowners is more important than punishing banks.  In “Anywhere I Hang My Hat…” Ms. Collins says that ever-recurring campaign issue of residency is back this go-round. It’s a particularly sensitive topic in Indiana right now.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

“Santorum Praises Income Inequality.”

That was Fox News’s headline about Rick Santorum’s speech at the Detroit Economic Club on Thursday. Santorum said, “I’m not about equality of result when it comes to income inequality. There is income inequality in America. There always has been and, hopefully, and I do say that, there always will be.”

Unbelievable. Maybe not, but stunning all the same.

Then again, Santorum is becoming increasingly unhinged in his public comments. Last week, he said that the president was arguing that Catholics would have to “hire women priests to comply with employment discrimination issues.”

Also last week, he suggested that liberals and the president were leading religious people into oppression and even beheadings. I kid you not. Santorum said: “They are taking faith and crushing it. Why? When you marginalize faith in America, when you remove the pillar of God-given rights, then what’s left is the French Revolution. What’s left is a government that gives you rights. What’s left are no unalienable rights. What’s left is a government that will tell you who you are, what you’ll do and when you’ll do it. What’s left in France became the guillotine.”

Yet for Santorum to champion income inequality in Detroit, of all places, is still incredibly tone-deaf.

Detroit has the highest poverty rate of any big city in America, according to data provided by Andrew A. Beveridge, a demographer at Queens College. Among the more than 70 cities with populations over 250,000, Detroit’s poverty rate topped the list at a whopping 37.6 percent, more than twice the national poverty rate. And according to the Census Bureau, median household income in Detroit from 2006-10 was just $28,357, which was only 55 percent of the overall U.S. median household income over that time.

This is a city that last year announced plans to close half its public schools and send layoff notices to every teacher in the system.

This is a city where the mayor’s pledge to demolish 10,000 abandoned structures was seen as only shaving the tip of the iceberg because, as The Wall Street Journal reported in 2010, “the city has roughly 90,000 abandoned or vacant homes and residential lots, according to Data Driven Detroit, a nonprofit that tracks demographic data for the city.”

This is not the place to praise income inequality. Last week, at a hearing before the Senate Budget Committee, Kent Conrad, the chairman of that committee, laid out the issue as many Americans see it:

“The growing gap between the very wealthy and everyone else has serious ramifications for the country. It hinders economic growth, it undermines confidence in our institutions, and it goes against one of the core ideals of this country — that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can succeed and leave a better future for your kids and your grandkids.”

This is arguably even more true of people in Michigan than for the rest of us. Even though income inequality in the Detroit area isn’t particularly high, looking at the issue as an urban one in the case of cities like Detroit is problematic. The whole region took a hit. The comparison for cities like Detroit may be more intra-city than inter-city.

As Willy Staley argued in 2010 in an online column for Next American City magazine: “In richer cities, the inequality is put side-by-side, in an uncomfortable, loathsome way; for cities left in the dust of deindustrialization, the inequality is presents (sic) as existing between cities, not within them. Gone is the city/suburb divide between rich and poor, income inequality manifests itself within wealthy cities and between cities.”

And it is this feeling of being left behind by the American economy and abandoned by Republicans that is pushing Michigan into the blue. Public Policy Polling, a Democratic polling company, found this week that Obama would handily defeat all the Republican candidates in head-to-head matchups in the state. The company’s president, Dean Debnam, said in a statement: “Michigan is looking less and less like it will be in the swing state column this fall.” He continued, “Barack Obama’s numbers in the state are improving, while the Republican field is heading in the other direction.”

Santorum went on to say about income inequality during his speech on Thursday: “We should celebrate like we do in the small towns all across America — as you do here in Detroit. You celebrate success. You build statues and monuments. Buildings, you name after them. Why? Because in their greatness and innovation, yes, they created wealth, but they created wealth for everybody else. And that’s a good thing, not something to be condemned in America.”

Santorum might want to take a walk around Detroit to see who’s celebrating and to see how many statues he can find to honor people who simply invented something and got rich.

Furthermore, as a newspaperman and a former Detroiter, I’d like to direct him to the James J. Brady Memorial. Detroit1701.org, maintained by a University of Michigan emeritus professor, calls it “one of the more attractive memorials in Detroit.” It pays tribute to Brady, a federal tax collector, who set out to address the issue of child poverty in the city by founding the Old Newsboys’ Goodfellows of Detroit Fund in 1914 — what is essentially a local welfare fund.

The group provides “warm clothing, toys, books, games and candy” to local children every Christmas in addition to sending poor children to summer camps, the dentist and to college.

Then again, charitable giving doesn’t appear to be high on Motor Mouth Santorum’s list of priorities. As The Washington Post pointed out, based on Santorum’s tax return disclosure this week, he has given the least amount to charity of the four presidential candidates who have disclosed their tax returns. (Ron Paul has not.) His charitable giving was just 1.8 percent of his adjusted gross income.

The Obamas were the highest, giving 14.2 percent, even though their income was second lowest.

Maybe that’s the imbalance we should praise.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

Thirteen years ago, state attorneys general reached a settlement in a huge lawsuit they had filed against the country’s biggest tobacco companies. The companies agreed to pay the states a staggering $246 billion while also limiting tobacco advertising, among other things.

The Master Settlement Agreement, as it was called, was widely heralded as a breakthrough in the fight against the purveyors of cigarettes. But it wasn’t. A year earlier, Congress had failed to approve a more far-reaching effort, one that would have placed tobacco under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration and set much tougher rules, including standards for regulating secondhand smoke.

The deal struck after that Congressional failure was, like most legal settlements, the product of a negotiation, and revolved mainly around money. It ultimately represented the best the states could get, given both the leverage they had and the constraints they had to deal with. The tobacco companies, it turned out, had leverage, too.

Last week, 49 attorneys general, along with the Obama administration, settled their robo-signing suit against the five biggest mortgage servicers. In some ways, it is the mirror image of the tobacco settlement; even before the ink was dry, liberal groups that prefer the term “banksters” complained that the settlement would fail to inflict a punishment commensurate with the crime.

Nor did the criticisms diminish after the settlement terms were announced. The New Bottom Line, a self-described “coalition of grass-roots, people of faith, homeowners, and workers,” called the settlement a “paltry down payment.” The American people wanted “$300 billion in principal reduction” instead of the $20 billion or so the settlement was likely to offer, the group added. On Friday, The Financial Times reported that the settlement would even allow the servicers to tap taxpayer funds from already-existing federal mortgage modification programs to lessen their liability. (Both Attorney General Tom Miller of Iowa — who spearheaded the states’ effort — and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which led the federal involvement, have said the story is wrong.)

But, whatever the flaws of the settlement, it, too, is a product of a negotiation, and it reflects both the strengths and weaknesses both sides brought to the table. Although robo-signing clearly violated the law, prosecuting it would have taken years, and it is highly unlikely that any court would have forced the servicers to pay anything close to the amount the settlement calls for. The threat that they could pull out of the talks and, in effect, dare the states to sue them always hung over the negotiations.

Why did this threat give the banks leverage? Because the real goal of the attorneys general was less to punish the banks than to provide foreclosure relief in the here and now. The prospect of protracted litigation was anathema to them, given the millions of Americans in danger of losing their homes — and the shoddy treatment so many have received from the banks as they have tried to get mortgage modification.

As part of the settlement, the banks agreed, for the first time, to servicing standards that will treat homeowners fairly. Anybody who has seen the foreclosure process up close these past few years knows how important it is to have real standards.

The deal is going to force the banks to pay $2.7 billion to provide lawyers and counseling for homeowners. A full-time monitor will oversee enforcement. And it will push the servicers to — finally! — make principal reductions. There are many experts who believe that principal reduction is the only way to pull the nation out of its housing crisis, yet the banks have been loath to take that route. Under the agreement, banks that swallow losses on principal will be able to take a credit against the liability. Miller says that the goal is to show the banks that principal reduction will not cause the sky to fall — and that they eventually begin doing it of their own volition.

For those who mainly care about seeing the banks punished, there will be other opportunities. The litigation relief the banks won is surprisingly narrow. States and the federal government will still be able to sue for lots of other abuses, including lying about the quality of mortgages that were bundled in toxic mortgage-backed securities.

Indeed, Eric Schneiderman, the attorney general of New York, is leading a joint effort with the federal government to investigate possible securitization fraud. Though he eventually signed onto the deal, Schneiderman had long been critical, because he feared it would give the banks too much relief.

Now he has to put his money where his mouth is. Let’s see if — when his investigation is complete and he is negotiating with the banks — he winds up putting the serious hurt on the banks. Or whether he, too, discovers that leverage works both ways.

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

Of all the issues you can raise in a political campaign, the dumbest is whether a member of Congress has moved his/her family to Washington.

O.K., possibly not the absolute dumbest. There was that dust-up over whether now-Senator Rand Paul had, as a college student, kidnapped a female friend and forced her to worship “Aqua Buddha.” Although now that I’m thinking about it, I really did enjoy that one.

Right now in Indiana, Senator Richard Lugar is under fire from a Tea Party opponent who claims that Lugar has not actually lived in the state since he first entered the Senate in 1977.

“This scandal is our chance to replace one of the most liberal Republicans in the Senate with a conservative!” said a fund-raising letter for Lugar’s opponent, Richard Mourdock, the state treasurer.

Lugar is actually a pretty conservative guy himself, although he is best known for his work on nuclear disarmament, which does not appear to be a Tea Party priority. The head of the right-wing PAC, Club for Growth, called for Lugar’s defeat the other day in a statement that denounced the senator for, among other things, having supported the bailout of New York City in 1978. I call that nursing a grudge.

Most of the publicity about the race, however, centers on the residency issue. Mourdock recently held a press conference at the house where Lugar has his voting address, and it definitely did seem to be occupied by another family.

“The entire state is his home,” retorted Lugar’s campaign manager. I am taking this to be a version of “So what?”

The senator’s ability to vote from a residence he hasn’t actually lived in for decades was, the campaign said, based on the same principle that allows a member of the military to vote from the last place he or she lived before going off to fight for the country. I’m not sure this is a comparison they’d want to press.

The issue of voting addresses is particularly sensitive in Indiana, where the secretary of state, Charlie White, was recently tossed out of office after being convicted of registering to vote at his former wife’s address while he actually lived with his fiancée. White, who once worked as a family law attorney, said his private life was “complicated,” which I’m sure we’re all prepared to believe.

Indiana is clearly a state with a lot of political excitement. Just recently, its State House voted in favor of drug-testing welfare recipients, which would not be all that remarkable except that the members also voted to drug-test themselves. “We had an amendment I thought was even better requiring drug testing for all corporate welfare recipients,” said Representative Ryan Dvorak, a Democrat from South Bend. That one, unfortunately, failed on a party-line vote.

But about the residency issue. These fights have been going on forever. One of the very first political investigations I ever worked on involved whether or not a veteran congressman maintained a voting address that was actually a Burger King outlet in North Haven, Conn.

Rick Santorum’s political career was built on an upset victory against a Democratic House member who, Santorum claimed, had lost touch with his district and moved his family to the Washington suburbs. When Santorum moved his own family to the Washington suburbs, he claimed that promises he made when he was in the House didn’t count for the Senate.

Then he enrolled the kids, who were being home-schooled, in a cyberschool that billed his old school district in Pennsylvania $38,000 a year.

“My dad’s opponents have criticized him for moving us to Washington so we could be with him more,” complained one of Santorum’s kids in an ad in 2006, shortly before he lost by one of the widest margins in the history of re-election campaigns. This was the same race in which Santorum claimed that his Democratic opponent, Robert Casey, was a “thug” who sent operatives to peep through the windows of the house near Pittsburgh where the senator maintained a voting address.

“Your despicable actions have endangered our children’s safety,” Santorum and his wife wrote to Casey. A Philadelphia Daily News columnist noted that the children in question were probably not in peril since they were, you know, in Virginia the whole time.

While serving in Congress is really, truly, not the same as serving in combat, these residency flaps are generally bogus. If we want a Congress that looks at least minimally like the country at large — including women, men with working wives, and parents of young children — we can’t carp if they want to keep their families within commuting distance.

Unless, of course, you are talking about somebody who got elected in the first place by running on the residency issue. Then carp away. Please.

 

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