Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

No Merit In Merritt?

Jim Merritt wants to be the Mayor of Indianapolis. It seems timely, then, to evaluate whether his performance in the statehouse has been in the best interests of those of us who live in the city he wants to lead.

His most recent performance fails that test.

During this session, a really important bill was sent to the Senate Utilities Committee, which Merritt chairs. Introduced by Sen. J.D. Ford, it would  have repealed last year’s highly controversial and damaging measure phasing out net metering in Indiana.

Merritt refused to give it a hearing.

Net metering is a billing arrangement between a customer who has a renewable energy system—typically solar panels—and the customer’s electric utility. When the system generates more electricity than the customer uses, the excess gets added to the grid and the customer gets credited at the same rate the utility charges when the customer is purchasing energy from the grid. Even though it’s an even swap, however, the customer also pays the utility an amount sufficient to cover its overhead costs–billing, meter reading, etc. Fair enough.

Net metering benefits utilities, customers and the general public by increasing grid resiliency and security, reducing carbon emissions, and reducing toxic air emissions.

But Senate Bill 309, passed last year, phased net metering out. Instead, it required customers to sell all of the electricity they generate to the utility at a much lower price than the utility charges its customers, and then buy back what they need at the “retail” price.

As I calculated it at the time, utilities would pay customers somewhere between 2.5 and 4.5 cents per kilowatt hour, but customers would have to buy it back at retail rates between 11 and 16 cents per kilowatt hour. It effectively priced rooftop solar and small-scale wind generation out of Indiana’s market–at a time when other states were encouraging it.

An Indianapolis Star investigation looked at how such laws have played out in other states, as well as the impact of the bill’s introduction, and warned that SB 309 “could put an entire industry at risk of stagnation at best — and, at worst, collapse.”

The Columbus’ Republic accurately summarized the bill at the time as a “fundamental change to Indiana’s solar energy policy,” based  “on a lack of evidence and faulty logic”and warned that it would severely undermine the future of solar power in the state.

The newspaper called the measure a “Trojan Horse,” and ended with a plea to Indiana legislators to defeat the bill.

A number of legislators opposed the measure. Representative Carey Hamilton–one of the most environmentally knowledgeable members of the Indiana legislature–argued that the task of determining rates should be left to the IURC, rather than the legislature. (During the committee hearing, Brant Hershman–the bill’s sponsor– admitted that he had “come up with” the rate in the bill himself.)

Rep. Matt Pierce, who also opposed the bill, pointed out that it would create uncertainty for small businesses and Hoosiers investing in the solar industry. Pierce also pointed out that there had been six hours of testimony, and the only people in favor of the bill were the utilities.

Senator Ford’s bill was a welcome effort to reverse what every knowledgeable observer considers bad policy. Senator Merritt refused to hear it.

I assume the utilities are properly grateful. Voters shouldn’t be.

What’s In A Name?

Paul Krugman’s recent column in the New York Times was titled “Trump versus the Socialist Menace,” and the tag line beneath the title warned that commies were coming for your pick-up truck.

The title alluded to Trump’s most recent effort to generate fear in his base. Krugman reminded us that we’ve seen this movie before, when the horrible threat of Medicare was looming, and the AMA hatched a plan to defeat it.

Here’s how it worked: Doctors’ wives (hey, it was 1961) were asked to invite their friends over and play them a recording in which Ronald Reagan explained that socialized medicine would destroy American freedom. The housewives, in turn, were supposed to write letters to Congress denouncing the menace of Medicare.

Obviously the strategy didn’t work; Medicare not only came into existence, but it became so popular that these days Republicans routinely (and falsely) accuse Democrats of planning to cut the program’s funding. But the strategy — claiming that any attempt to strengthen the social safety net or limit inequality will put us on a slippery slope to totalitarianism — endures.

It sure does. It’s fed by America’s bipolar, “either-or” approach to policy and ignorance of economic systems.

In the real world, there are very few countries where either socialism or capitalism characterizes the entire economy. Virtually all democratic nations have a mixed economy, meaning that certain things are socialized (i.e., provided communally, through government and paid for by taxes) and others are left to the market.

The actual question facing policymakers is which approach is appropriate in a given situation.

America already “socializes” police and fire protection. Most cities “socialize” garbage collection. Our streets and sidewalks–and interstate highways–are “socialized.” (In a recent Facebook post, a friend warned that a “socialist snowplow” was coming down his street.)

One way to think about this (although “thinking” is apparently a difficult assignment for many folks) is that government is a mechanism through which societies provide infrastructure. Some of that infrastructure is physical–bridges, roads, etc.–and some of it is social. Police and firefighters, Social Security and Medicare and a variety of social welfare programs are part of the social infrastructure.

Market capitalism, properly regulated, is incredibly successful in providing goods and services when buyers and sellers are operating on relatively equal terms. Economists tell us that markets work well when there is 1) a willing buyer and a willing seller both of whom are in possession of all relevant information, and 2) government has ensured a level playing field.

Quite obviously, there are areas of the economy in which markets don’t work. (Utilities come to mind–when did you last take bids from companies wanting to supply your water or sewer?) In those areas, government gets involved, either through stringent regulation or –gasp!–by socializing the service.

It is perfectly reasonable to debate whether a given service or economic area should be left to the market or provided communally–and if the latter, how that should be done. It is both unreasonable and dishonest to pretend that every decision to socialize a service is a step toward totalitarian communism, but as Krugman says, that’s this administration’s rhetoric.

You say you want free college tuition? Think of all the people who died in the Ukraine famine! And no, this isn’t a caricature: Read the strange, smarmy report on socialism that Trump’s economists released last fall; that’s pretty much how its argument goes.

Ironically, these hysterical descriptions have actually made the word “socialism” less off-putting. Recent polls show a significant number of voters approving of socialism (including a majority of those under 30). They’ve evidently accepted conservative labeling that “describes anything that tempers the excesses of a market economy as socialism, and in effect said, “Well, in that case I’m a socialist.””

When words are used as invective, they no longer communicate anything of substance. I think that’s where we are with both capitalism and socialism, and that really impedes rational policymaking.

 

 

 

Grateful For Our Nation Of Immigrants

NBC, among other news outlets, recently ran an article showcasing Jin Park, a Harvard student who recently won a Rhodes Scholarship. Jin is a DACA recipient; he was brought to the US when he was seven years old.

“I’m thankful and I think it’s a testament to if you give immigrants in America an opportunity, if you allow us to live fully in our truth and see us totally in our personhood, this is the kind of thing that can happen,” he said.

Park is currently completing his bachelor of arts at Harvard in molecular and cellular biology,according to a biography provided by the Rhodes Trust. Park plans on pursuing master’s degrees in migration studies and global health science and epidemiology at Oxford, according to the biography.

Whatever one’s feelings about undocumented adult immigrants, Jin and other DACA recipients were brought here as children. They didn’t have the capacity to make a decision to enter the country illegally, and they shouldn’t be punished for their parents’ actions.

DACA aside, there are many reasons America should be welcoming immigrants, not trying to wall them out.

I’ve previously posted about the incredible contributions to the American economy made by immigrants–both documented and not– and their children.

More than 40% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children. Collectively, companies founded by immigrants and their children employ more than 10 million people worldwide; and the revenue they generate is greater than the GDP of every country in the world except the U.S., China and Japan.

I was reminded of those contributions when I opened last week’s issue of the Indianapolis Business Journal. The IBJ has a yearly feature called “Forty Under Forty,” in which the publication showcases up and coming “movers and shakers”–young people who have made a demonstrable impact in Indianapolis’ business, nonprofit and public organizations and civic life. Over the years, the diversity of those included has steadily grown–there are more black and brown faces and many more women than was the case some ten or more years ago.

There are also a lot more immigrants or children of immigrants. I didn’t count, but I’d estimate that the descriptions accompanying the photos identified nearly a quarter of this year’s honorees as either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants. These young men and women are already making substantial contributions to our city and state–contributions from which all of us benefit.

Sentient Americans understand that Trump’s fevered and stubborn insistence on building a wall is both stupid (most undocumented people have flown in and overstayed a visa) and racist (he doesn’t want a wall between us and Canada, and he issued an invitation to Norwegians). That isn’t to say the wall wouldn’t have an effect, but that effect would be symbolic: it would send a message to brown people that they are not welcome here, and it would reaffirm the real basis of Trump’s appeal in the eyes of his supporters: his promise to make America White again.

As I looked through the accomplishments of this year’s list of 40 Under 40, all I could think of was the incredible amount of talent, entrepreneurship and work ethic that Indiana and America stand to lose if Trump and his supporters prevail.

I for one am immensely grateful I don’t live in a nation populated with versions of Don Jr. and Eric.

 

What About The Children?

I haven’t blogged about the children separated from their parents at the border, because–really–what can I say? It is so horrific, so diametrically opposed to what rational people want to believe about our country, that it is overwhelming.

It was bad enough when the news of this inconceivable aspect of Trump’s “zero tolerance” first emerged; it was worse when we saw photos of children in cages and read reports of the “privatized” facilities charging taxpayers big bucks to warehouse bewildered, frightened children. But then the courts ordered that families be re-united, and we could tell ourselves that the damage would be limited. (Yes, some children would probably carry that trauma into their adult lives, but at least they would be back with their parents.)

But early this month, we woke to headlines that should–but probably won’t– shame every Trump voter. ABC News reported that “thousands” more children had been taken from their parents than previously reported.

President Donald Trump’s administration does not know how many migrant children were separated from their parents at the southern border in the year before the “zero-tolerance” policy launched, and is unlikely to figure it out, according to court papers filed Friday night.

Last month, an internal government report found that during the Trump administration, thousands more kids may have been separated from their parents at the border than was previously known and that a “steep increase” of separations began in the summer of 2017, almost a year before the “zero-tolerance” policy was announcedby then-Attorney General Jeff Sessionsin the spring of 2018.

NBC highlighted the government’s admission that it was probably unable to reunite the children with their families.

The Trump administration said in a court filing that reuniting thousands of migrant children separated from their parents or guardians at the U.S.-Mexico border may not be “within the realm of the possible.”

The filing late Friday from Jallyn Sualog, deputy director of the department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, was an ordered response in an ACLU lawsuit challenging the government’s separation of thousands of children at the border since the summer of 2017. The estimate of “thousands” comes from the HHS Office of Inspector General’s January report and pertains to children separated before the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy came into effect in 2018.

Sualog said her office doesn’t have the resources to track down the children, whose numbers could be thousands more than the official estimate.

This administration is the perfect marriage of evil and incompetence.

I can’t even get my head around what those mothers and fathers must be feeling, let alone the terror experienced by small children suddenly bereft of their parents. I think back to when my own children were young and they were the absolute center of my life. (I’m still pretty fond of them.)

How can any parent fail to empathize with mothers and fathers frantic to protect their children from the daily threats posed by civil disorder? I would have gone to similar lengths to find a safe environment for my children.

The people who came with children to our southern border evidently believed what most Americans believed until Trump–that this nation of immigrants would greet them with justice and compassion and help them save their children. They couldn’t have foreseen what actually happened–that their children would be taken from them, that their whereabouts would be unaccounted for, and the country they’d pinned their hopes on wouldn’t care.

The richest country in the world “lacks the resources” to find the children they stole. The “can do” country didn’t bother to keep records.

It’s heartbreaking and inexcusable.

 

The Best Worst

Note: This is tomorrow’s blog. Accidentally posted early.

When I was growing up, there was a widespread assumption that you could judge people by the friends they chose. Did Johnny run around with a bad crowd? Was Susie attracted to “bad boys”? In political life, we had a similar shorthand: did the Mayor or Governor or President surround himself (back then, it was always a him) with quality people? Knowledgable, ethical people? If not, it was a bad sign.

Which brings me to Gail Collins’ recent contest. Collins asked her readers to vote for Trump’s worst cabinet member. As you might guess, the competition was fierce. She began with a warning:

No fair just yelling “Wilbur Ross!” Our secretary of commerce appeared to be trying to sweep the field last week when he expressed bafflement that federal workers were going to food banks during the government shutdown rather than taking out loans.

Collins described several other contenders: Kirstjen Nielsen generated false evidence to justify the president’s ugly immigration policies, oversees the execution of those policies, and consistently lies about them. She’s a strong contestant.

And she’s been pretty effective in carrying out her plans, which is important when you’re part of a crew where ineptitude often cancels out bad intentions.

For instance, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos would certainly like to privatize the nation’s public schools, but she barely seems organized enough to get dressed in the morning. Still, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, believes DeVos should get Worst points for having “basically spent her time in that office working for everyone but the kids.”

If I were voting, DeVos would definitely be a finalist.

Although Collins listed Rick Perry, Mr. “Oops” has managed to look positively benign next to most of the other cabinet members.

Some cabinet-watchers are discovering, to their shock, that they miss Scott Pruitt, who won last year’s competitionas the anti-environment head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt was famous for his public relations disasters. Remember security agentswho were sent to pick up his dry cleaning and drove him from one place to the next in a search for a special moisturizer?

Now we’ve got E.P.A. Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist who’s way better at the job. Presuming you believe the job is screwing up the air and water.

Collins points out that a quarter of the cabinet are “acting”– she terms them “high-end governmental equivalent of temps.” It’s quite a list; it  includes the E.P.A., and the Departments of Defense, Justice and Interior.

People who care about land conservation were unnerved when the inept Ryan Zinke was replaced by Acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, a former oil industry lobbyist. Can you imagine Bernhardt and Wheeler plotting together?

I don’t know where those “people who care about land conservation”–or clean air and water–are, but it’s pretty obvious none of them are serving in this Administration.

Collins acknowledges the challenge in picking a Worst Cabinet Member–as she says, there is so much competition.

Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, ticked off Pompeo, DeVos, Nielsen, Steve Mnuchin (“Certainly the slimiest Treasury secretary ever”) and Housing Secretary Ben Carson.

Let’s face it. The most apparent qualification for a cabinet position in this administration is a belief that the agency you are heading is illegitimate.

Pruitt and Wheeler both prioritize fossil fuel interests over pesky concerns about clean air or water; DeVos (recommended by Mike Pence–need I say more?) has an animus toward public education–both she and Pence want schools to “bring children to Jesus”–and her background included pretty much destroying Michigan’s public schools. Maybe Ben Carson was a good surgeon, but he has often expressed bias against “handouts” like affordable housing, also known as the mission of his agency.

It’s really hard to choose a “worst” from this assortment of incompetents and crooks, otherwise known as Trump’s “best people.”

My favorite description of this pathetic assemblage was posted by a Facebook friend, who said “I’ve seen better cabinets at IKEA.”