Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

Follow The Money

Want to know what America’s real priorities are? Easy; just follow the money.

Some of what we find when we examine federal spending isn’t a surprise. We’ve all watched as the Trump Administration has eviscerated the EPA, for example, so cuts and rollbacks there may infuriate but not surprise us. After all, Trump has dismissed climate change as a “Chinese hoax,” eliminated subsidies for clean energy, and slapped tariffs on solar panels.

Given this administration’s well-known bias against science, evidence and clean energy–not to mention Trump’s fondness for the dying coal industry–I shouldn’t have been surprised by the general thrust of a recent study of America’s federal subsidies for fossil fuels  by the International Monetary Fund.

But I was.

Because the amount of the subsidy was staggering.

The United States has spent more subsidizing fossil fuelsin recent years than it has on defense spending, according to a new report from the International Monetary Fund.

The IMF found that direct and indirect subsidies for coal, oil and gas in the U.S. reached $649 billion in 2015. Pentagon spending that same year was $599 billion.

The study defines “subsidy” very broadly, as many economists do. It accounts for the “differences between actual consumer fuel prices and how much consumers would pay if prices fully reflected supply costs plus the taxes needed to reflect environmental costs” and other damage, including premature deaths from air pollution.

Since most observers consider the U.S. defense budget to be hopelessly bloated, the fact that fossil fuel subsidies exceed that budget is absolutely mind-blowing.

The study concluded that if fossil fuels had been fairly priced in 2015–i.e., priced without those direct and indirect subsidies by the federal government– global carbon emissions would have been reduced by 28 percent, and deaths from fossil fuel-linked air pollution would have been cut in half.

People (like me) concerned about the environment may not have recognized the enormity of the fossil fuel subsidies, but most of us were pretty sure that a lot more federal dollars go to support fossil fuels than are directed to programs incentivizing the development of clean, alternative energy. The IMF study confirmed that suspicion.

And then there’s the extent to which our financial support of fossil fuels exceeds our investment in education. Seeing those numbers was another gut punch. After all, Americans give lots of lip service to education; we’ve had “education Presidents,” and it is the rare politician who doesn’t make education a prominent part of his or her platform.

Nevertheless, according to Forbes Magazine, that same IMF study determined that the U.S. spends ten times more money propping up the fossil fuels that drive climate change than we spend on education.

Globally, fossil fuels receive 85% of all government subsidies. What if we diverted just a portion of the U.S. subsidies and used that money to improve public education?

Virtually every candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination has expressed concern about climate change, and an intention to combat it. Voters can determine just how committed they are to the environment by asking whether the candidate plans to continue the obscene subsidies that waste our tax dollars, pad the bottom lines of immensely profitable oil and gas interests, and prevent us from effectively addressing an existential threat to the planet.

Just think what we could do if we redirected a substantial portion of the defense budget (as, interestingly, the Department of Defense itself has advocated) and entirely terminated the unnecessary, wasteful and arguably immoral subsidies for fossil fuels.

 

 

Adventures In Privatization

For a considerable period of time in the late 1900s, privatization of government functions was all the rage. (Not that it was true privatization; as I’ve noted before, actual privatization  requires that government completely withdraw from whatever activity was involved, leaving its provision entirely to the private sector.)

What public entities call privatization is almost always contracting-out or outsourcing–providing a service through a third-party surrogate rather than through government employees.

Enthusiasm for the practice has abated considerably, as research has steadily deflated the claims made by proponents. Contracting out doesn’t usually save money, for one thing, and the ability of government to monitor those with whom it contracts has proved to be less than ideal, to put it mildly.

Also, in far too many situations, contracting has become the new patronage.

There are certainly public functions that lend themselves to outsourcing, but thanks to the American penchant to go “all in” on the latest management fad, contracting has often proved disastrous. From poor outcomes, to cost overruns, to outright corruption, analyses have been increasingly negative.  A recent research project adds one: government outsourcing decreases employee diversity.

A new study by researchers at the University of Georgia revealed that when governments contract work out to private companies, fewer  African-American, Hispanic, and female employees are hired.

Over the past twenty years, private contracting has become a popular way to improve efficiency in the public sector.

“Increasingly, services that were once performed by public employees, are provided under contract by private firms,” explained study author J. Edward Kellough, a UGA professor of public administration and policy in the School of International and Public Affairs. “The question,” he added, “is whether this growth in contracting has been detrimental to minority and female employment.”

That’s not nearly the worst of it.

The Trump Administration has been contracting with private prison companies to house refugees at our southern border. Private prisons are arguably the most striking misuse of government outsourcing, and their operation of border facilities has raised understandable outrage.

I’ll let Paul Krugman take it from here.

Is it cruelty, or is it corruption? That’s a question that comes up whenever we learn about some new, extraordinary abuse by the Trump administration — something that seems to happen just about every week. And the answer, usually, is “both.”

What about the detention centers at the border?

And the same goes for the atrocities the U.S. is committing against migrants from Central America. Oh, and save the fake outrage. Yes, they are atrocities, and yes, the detention centers meet the historical definition of concentration camps.

One reason for these atrocities is that the Trump administration sees cruelty both as a policy tool and as a political strategy: Vicious treatment of refugees might deter future asylum-seekers, and in any case it helps rev up the racist base. But there’s also money to be made, because a majority of detained migrants are being held in camps run by corporations with close ties to the Republican Party.

Krugman then sums up the whole sorry experiment with “privatization.”

Privatization of public services — having them delivered by contractors rather than government employees — took off during the 1980s. It has often been justified using the rhetoric of free markets, the supposed superiority of private enterprise to government bureaucracy.

This was always, however, a case of bait-and-switch. Free markets, in which private businesses compete for customers, can accomplish great things, and are indeed the best way to organize most of the economy. But the case for free markets isn’t a case for private business where there is no market: There’s no reason to presume that private firms will do a better job when there isn’t any competition, because the government itself is the sole customer. In fact, studies of privatization often find that it ends up costing more than having government employees do the work.

Nor is that an accident. Between campaign contributions and the revolving door, plus more outright bribery than we’d like to think, private contractors can engineer overpayment on a scale beyond the wildest dreams of public-sector unions.

Krugman makes an even more important point about accountability.

As he says, if you outsource garbage collection, it’s pretty easy to determine whether the garbage has been collected (although I’d note it’s not so easy to tell where it’s been dumped…). But if you hire a private company to do something the public can’t see–like prisons or migrant camps– it’s easy to hide poor performance and generous overpayments to political cronies.

And running a prison, which is literally walled off from public view, is almost a perfect example of the kind of government function that should not be privatized. After all, if a private prison operator bulks up its bottom line by underpaying personnel and failing to train them adequately, if it stints on food and medical care, who in the outside world will notice?

And of course, the administration and its cronies profit from these facilities. It’s hard to disagree with Krugman’s final observation:

Every betrayal of American principles also seems, somehow, to produce financial benefits for Trump and his friends.

 

Uncommon Common Ground

The unrelenting assault on American democracy and norms of governance has led many of us to focus pretty single-mindedly on the insanities coming from Trump’s Washington. As a result, we miss events that might otherwise be more widely reported.

Had a Facebook friend not posted this article, I’d have missed it. As it was, it was so counter-intuitive, I immediately looked for confirmation. But it’s true: George Soros and Charles Koch have teamed up to support a new think-tank that will work toward what would be a dramatic change in American foreign policy– an end to this country’s “forever” wars.

An article in Slate explains this rather startling partnership,

Any initiative that boasts funding from both George Soros and Charles Koch—boogeymen of the right and left, respectively—is going to garner some attention. But the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a newly planned anti-war foreign policy think tank, aims to get noticed for more than just the money behind it. Its founders hope that, as operations ramp up in the coming months, the institute will provide a critique not only of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, but of the hawkish bipartisan consensus in Washington.

The group’s inception is driven by a shared concern over the United States’ long-standing reliance on military force over diplomacy, as well as the belief that “the foreign policy establishment is ill-equipped to interpret what was happening, particularly the foreign policy of Donald Trump, let alone to combat it and steer it in a better direction,” says co-founder Stephen Wertheim, a historian at Columbia University and writer on U.S. foreign policy.

The new  Institute will advocate for withdrawal of U.S. troops from combat missions in Syria and Afghanistan; perhaps more importantly,  it is expected to support substantial reductions of the defense budget, and foreign policies relying more on diplomacy and less on confrontation.

While much of the foreign policy establishment supports diplomatic initiatives like the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Wertheim believes that there’s not enough of an apparatus to support them. “Worthy initiatives like the Iran nuclear deal—it was way too hard to fight for them, and then it proved too difficult to maintain them,” he says.

The Quincy Institute takes its name from President John Quincy Adams, who famously warned Americans against going abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.”

They plan to set up offices in D.C. and begin hiring fellows in the coming months as well as release several reports before the end of this year. In addition to Wertheim, the group’s founders include Trita Parsi, the former president of the National Iranian American Council and a leading proponent of the Iran nuclear deal; Suzanne DiMaggio, an expert on negotiations with Iran and North Korea currently with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; journalist Eli Clifton of the Nation; and the historian and retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich.

Koch has long been a favorite bogeyman for anyone who isn’t a right-winger or doctrinaire libertarian; he and his brother have spent millions promoting deregulation, opposing universal health care and fighting efforts to address climate change. But Charles is also known for what the article calls “iconoclastic views on foreign policy” and for supporting a less interventionist foreign policy.

Soros is a longtime supporter of civil society and democratic movements, and for championing civil liberties and liberalization of autocratic countries. But that support doesn’t necessarily translate into military interventions to accomplish those ends.

“We are all for democracy and human rights,” Wertheim says. “But what is the best way to promote those things? If we rhetorically promote human rights and democracy in ways that lead to war or the kind of starvation sanctions we currently see with Iran, that does not advance human rights.”

In my more optimistic moments (few and far between as those have become) I wonder whether the Trump Presidency’s awfulness may be sparking a positive blowback. I’ve seen a genuine resurgence of interest in civic knowledge, and it is impossible not to notice–and applaud–the enormous increase in civic activism and engagement.

As the Slate article notes, Trump’s foreign policy approach (which the article labels “idiosyncratic” and I would define as incompetent-fascist) has appalled everyone: “neoconservatives, liberal internationalists, anti-war leftists, libertarians, and conservative realists.” As this uncommon example of common ground illustrates, Trump has been a wake-up call in all sorts of ways.

Let’s just hope enough Americans actually wake up, and  once Trump is gone, don’t just hit the snooze button.

Stop The World…Your GOP In Action

Evidently, when Ivanka wasn’t being inappropriately intrusive at the recent G20 meeting in Tokyo, her father was trying to talk other heads of state into abandoning their commitments under the Paris accords.

If you harbor any doubt that what remains of the Republican Party is an uninformed and anti-intellectual Trump cult, the party’s assault on efforts to ward off the worst effects of climate change is the most obvious evidence.

What happened just recently in Oregon is an example.

A major climate-change bill, which [activists] had worked on for the last several years, was on the verge of passing the state legislature, which, since last year’s midterm elections, has been controlled by a supermajority of Democrats. Governor Kate Brown, a Democrat, had campaigned on its policies, and planned to sign it. On climate policy, Brown had said, “Oregon can be the log that breaks the jam nationally.” Then, last week, eleven Republican state senators walked out of the statehouse, fled the capitol, and apparently hid out of state, in order to deny the rest of the Senate the necessary twenty-person quorum required to move the bill to a vote. Representatives of fringe right-wing militia groups said that they would protect the state senators “at any cost,” and that protesters supporting the bill at the capitol should be warned of their presence.

The proposal had gone through lengthy negotiations and public meetings. Lawmakers had taken citizens’ comments. The bill was supported by all nine of the state’s federally recognized Native American tribes, and even by the state’s electric utilities. Major corporations in the state supported it.

In order to defy both the majority of the legislature and public opinion, the Republican lawmakers simply fled.

On Friday, members of right-wing militia groups including the Three Percenters of Oregon, who took part in the 2016 takeoverof Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, posted a different form of encouragement on social media, saying that they were willing to provide the hiding senators “security” and “refuge.” They also appeared to be organizing a weekend protest at the capitol, scheduled for when lawmakers gathered on Saturday. A commenter on Facebook offeredto bring “a few pickup loads of manure” to drop on the capitol’s steps. An unnamed source told Will Sommer, of the Daily Beast, that “dozens of armed militia members have ‘mobilized’ to protect the state senators, and said there was potential for violence if law enforcement officials try to bring the senators back to Oregon.” In response, Oregon state troopers recommended that the capitol be closed on Saturday “due to a possible militia threat,” according to a spokeswoman from the Senate president’s office.

Poll after poll confirms that a substantial majority of Americans is concerned about climate change, and believes government should forcefully address it.

I’m old enough to remember when politicians would reflect popular opinion–even when they didn’t agree with it– in order to be re-elected. Thanks to the demise of genuine democracy–courtesy of Citizens United and gerrymandering, among other assaults–today’s Republican lawmakers are responsive only to one constituency: their donors, who prioritize today’s bottom line over tomorrow’s planetary survival.

In an administration notable for lack of consistency (not to mention competence),  there has been one area of single-mindedness: attacks on science accompanied by persistent rollbacks of environmental protections.

Self-destruction is by definition insane.

What if I had been told by trustworthy experts that my furnace had a 95% chance of  blowing up at any moment, but I refused to replace it because I wanted to augment my already fat bank account and there was a 5% chance it wouldn’t blow? That would be nuts. What good would my bank account do me if my furnace blew up and killed me?

Yet that is the position of today’s GOP.  There is no rational defense for that position, because it is indefensible. It is, quite literally, insane.

Unfortunately, in the immortal words of Tom Lehrer, “We’ll all go together when we go.”

 

The Court Betrayed Us: What Can We Do?

Talking Points Memo summed up the dilemma for American democracy in the face of the Supreme Court’s dishonest, cynically partisan decision.

The chief’s opinion in Rucho v. Common Cause doesn’t withstand even basic scrutiny. The court’s majority decided that partisan gerrymandering disputes are “non-justiciable” — that is, the courts can’t intervene in them — because, essentially, courts aren’t equipped to come up with a standard to determine when gerrymanders go too far. Never mind that the lack of what the court calls a “judicially manageable standard” appears to have literally never held the justices back before on any other issue. Never mind also that, as the Brennan Center’s Tom Wolf has pointed out, five different federal courts, relying on the work of respected political scientists, have had little trouble coming up with manageable standards to strike down partisan gerrymanders in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan, and Maryland. To Roberts, it’s all a bunch of “sociological gobbledygook.”

It’s hard not to see Rucho as a direct relative of past Roberts court rulings that likewise crippled our democracy, like the Shelby County decision gutting the Voting Rights Act, the Citizens United decision striking down campaign finance rules, the Crawford case upholding voter ID laws,  and the Husted opinion allowing purges of voter rolls.

So the Court isn’t going to protect “one person, one vote. The Court leaves in place a tactic that, according to the Cook report, has created today’s political reality: 19 out of 20 voters reside in a non-competitive Congressional District.

That’s where we are. The urgent question is: what do we do?

The easy answer–which is by no means easy to accomplish–is to elect Democrats. Everywhere. City, State and federal offices. That’s not because Democrats are angels, or unwilling to play the gerrymandering game–one of the cases before the Supreme Court was from Maryland, which had been redistricted by Democrats for Democrats. But for a number of reasons (including the fact that Republicans have been much better at partisan redistricting and by far the most numerous beneficiaries of it), Democrats have made fair redistricting an important policy commitment.

If Democrats take the Senate, the House bills Mitch McConnell refuses to hear will pass–Including the all-important H.R.1, the sweeping democracy reform bill that would expand voting access. fix our campaign finance system, and make redistricting fair and transparent. Without a Democratic Senate, however, H.R. 1 won’t pass.

What else can we do?

A local answer that is “doable” in some states is to mount a referendum. These have been very successful in states where such mechanisms are available. Indiana, unfortunately, is not one of those states.

Long-term, what we need in Indiana is an amendment to the state’s constitution. That document currently places responsibility for redistricting with the state legislature–a  provision that creates an obvious conflict of interest. It places decision-making in the hands of those whose interests will be affected, allowing lawmakers to choose their voters rather than the other way around.

The problem is, efforts to amend the Indiana Constitution–ideally, to provide that redistricting will henceforth be the responsibility of a nonpartisan or bipartisan commission–must originate with that same conflicted legislature.

I invite my more creative lawyer and political friends to weigh in, but after much “mulling over” (and not an inconsiderable amount of alcohol), here’s the best advice I can come up with for our not-as-Red-as-people-think Hoosier state:

We need a “movement.” (I’m aspiring to Hong Kong sized….)

Furious Hoosiers can build on the coalition already in place under the auspices of Common Cause and the League of Women Voters. We should make lots of noise;  we should endorse candidates for the General Assembly who commit to support a constitutional amendment addressing gerrymandering; and we should “call out” legislators who sabotage efforts at representative government.

I realize it won’t be easy. Common Cause has been fighting this battle for nearly 20 years, and Indiana is still the 5th most gerrymandered state in the nation. But over that time, many more people have come to understand the problem. What the forces of change have going for us now is anger–anger at the corruption of Trump and his Administration, anger at the Vichy Republicans who put party before country, and anger at a partisan Court that rewards Mitch McConnell’s willingness to cheat.

However energized the anti-gerrymandering movement, however, there is no escaping the conclusion that the first order of business is turnout in 2020.

Indiana was blue in 2008, partly because a lot of people who didn’t often vote, did. And as I have pointed out before, even Indiana’s extreme gerrymandering won’t protect the GOP super-majority if we have massive turnout. 

A tsunami of votes in 2020 can “jump start” a grass-roots effort to make “one person, one vote” a reality.

If that fails, so does democratic self-government.

Happy 4th of July.