Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

If Only Idiocy Was Confined to Texas

One of my favorite blogs, as I’ve noted here before, is “Juanita Jean’s, the World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Salon, Inc.” In a recent post, Juanita Jean takes Texas’ Lt. Governor Dan Patrick to task for being, as she delicately puts it, “a damn fool.”

Juanita is too restrained.

We have a few minor problems in Texas.  We are next to last in education. We are first in uninsured children. Our maternal death rate has doubled, making it twice what it is in Turkey and Chile. Our roads and bridges are crumbling. A quarter of Texas children live in poverty.

And what is Dan Patrick concerned about?

Keeping men out of ladies’ rooms.

screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-9-39-33-amThere ya go.  This man is burning rocket fuel to Crazyville.

You can write this on the barn with waterproof paint:  Dan Patrick thinks about sex waaaaay too much.

If this idiocy was confined to Texas (a state which sometimes seems to have invented embarrassingly bad public policy), that would be one thing, but this fixation on who uses what bathroom is hardly unique to Texas.

Given the real issues America faces, it seems incomprehensible. But I do have a theory. (Yes, I always have a theory…cockamamie as some of them may be.)

We have a cohort of Americans–mostly older Americans, and mostly but not exclusively men–who wake up every morning to a world they no longer understand. Technology is complicated. Their position in society is no longer secure. Minorities are asserting legal rights. Change is constant. Media outlets looking for “clicks” and eyeballs tell them that terrorists and criminals are everywhere, just waiting to pounce.

They are convinced that they are losing America–and it’s true that they are losing the America they imagine they used to occupy. So they support Patrick and Trump and others like them. They desperately want to put black people back on the other side of the tracks and gay people back in the closet. Those efforts aren’t going so well–so they’ve shifted the focus to transgender folks. After all, transgender equality is a “Johnny-come-lately” civil rights movement–and fewer people actually know transgender people.

They may not understand climate change or economic policy or what’s happening in Aleppo or what the hell Snapchat is, but they do know what restrooms are.

On the other hand, most of them definitely do not know what irony is.

As a number of people have pointed out in the wake of the “grab her by the p—y” tape, the same men who have been absolutely horrified at the thought of a transgender person urinating in the same restroom with their wives and daughters–the same men who are hellbent to protect the “sanctity of the stall”– are the ones dismissing Trump’s braggadocio about his sexual assaults as “locker room talk.”

This isn’t about transgender folks. This is about the loss of male privilege. If anyone is going to assault their women, it had better be (their version of) a real man!

Voter Frauds

One of the most pernicious tactics employed by Republican political operatives is voter suppression masquerading as protection against “voter fraud.” As proponents of Voter ID are well aware, such fraud as exists almost never happens during the in-person vote process that Voter ID laws target.

Virtually all of the “Voter ID” measures being pushed by Republicans are thinly-veiled efforts to intimidate poor and minority voters, who are more likely to vote Democratic. This year, the suspicions fostered by these ungrounded accusations of voter fraud have been further inflamed by Donald Trump’s insistence that, if he doesn’t win, it will be proof that the election is “rigged.”

Here in central Indiana, the media has been reporting on an investigation that newspaper and broadcast outlets have labeled “voter fraud”–but that should be called “registration fraud.”

Interestingly–at least from the somewhat garbled news reports–they are investigating what appears to be an effort to disenfranchise legitimate voters, rather than provide phony credentials to illegitimate ones. Easily detectable inaccurate information is apparently being coupled with the names of actual voters, who may not check to be sure they are properly registered, and won’t realize  they aren’t until they appear at their precinct voting place and are rejected.

Until more details are released, it’s hard to tell precisely what scheme is being alleged. Whatever the actual scam turns out to be, the labeling of any dishonesty focused on the franchise as “vote fraud” simply confirms the public’s belief that there’s justification for Voter ID laws–even though people getting hit by lightning occurs more frequently  than in-person vote fraud.

Illegal voting behaviors include such things as double voting (ballot stuffing), where one individual casts more than one ballot in the same election; dead voting, where the name of a deceased person remains on a state’s official list of registered voters and a living person casts a ballot using that name; felon voter fraud, where a convicted felon who is for that reason not eligible to vote does so; vote-buying,  where someone pays voters to vote a certain way; and fraud by election officials: where dishonest officials toss out ballots or cast ballots using the names of registered voters who didn’t show up at the polls.

As anyone who has worked at the polls can tell you, the best guarantee against these efforts to “rig” the system is competent management of the state’s voter rolls–purging dead and otherwise ineligible voters, ensuring that poll watchers from both major parties are present and similar safeguards. Vote buying is by far the most difficult to detect, and Voter ID would do nothing to prevent it.

The election fraud we see most frequently, ironically, is voter suppression, defined by Ballotpedia as  “A variety of tactics aimed at lowering or suppressing the number of voters who might otherwise vote in a particular election.”

During this election cycle, a new concern has arisen: the possibility that an election dependent upon electronic voting machines might be hacked. As the Brennan Center has noted, however,

There are over 10,000 election jurisdictions in the United States. This means in a federal election, there are essentially more than 10,000 separate elections being run, with different voting machines, ballots, rules, and security measures. One clear benefit of this system is that it is not possible to attack the nation’s voting machines in one location, as might be possible with a statewide voter registration database or campaign email server.

Bottom line: no one is going to “steal” or “rig” this election. If the results are–to coin a word–“deplorable,” American voters will have only ourselves to blame.

And for the Department of Head in the Sand….

Another day, another reason to view Donald Trump as a threat not just to the United States  and the rule of law, but to the entire globe.

As has been widely reported, Trump has called global warming “bullshit” and he has said that, if elected, he would “cancel” the Paris climate accord and reverse President Obama’s executive actions on climate change. Now, he has announced that Myron Ebell will head up his climate transition team, should he be elected President.

And who is Myron Ebell?

Ebell certainly is not a climate scientist. He is instead a disinformation specialist on global warming, working out of the D.C. offices of the right-wing, Koch-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute as chief of the Center for Energy and Environment. He is also chairman of Cooler Heads Coalition, a collection of propagandists that “question[s] global warming alarmism and oppose energy-rationing policies.” And now he’s been picked to head Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency transition team.

The rest of this “environmental team” are equally frightening.

Also appointed by Trump: Mike McKenna to guide the Department of Energy transition team. He’s worked in the energy field for former Virginia Republican Gov. George Allen and in the George H.W. Bush administration. He’s currently a lobbyist for Koch Companies Public Sector LLC, Southern Company Services, Dow Chemical Co. and Competitive Power Ventures Inc. David Bernhardt, formerly with the U.S. Department of Interior, will be heading the DOI transition team. Bernhardt works the Natural Resources Department of the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Faber Shreck. Among other things, he has represented clients involved in energy development on American Indian lands and businesses accused of violating the Department of the Interior’s regulations.

There are two main categories of science deniers: those who place their immediate financial interests above the common good and their children and grandchildren’s futures; and people like Donald Trump, who live in a reality of their own construction.

As with other aspects of the real world, Trump and his ilk apparently believe that it is possible to ignore facts, science and empirical evidence if you simply put your fingers in your ears and go “la la la, I can’t hear you.”

The problem with childish responses to complex, adult problems isn’t simply that they don’t solve those problems. It’s that they make them much worse.

Whether the Donalds of the world want to believe it or not, climate change is not only occurring, it’s accelerating. The consequences–even if we begin to act responsibly–will be enormously costly, and will reshape global population patterns and politics.

If we don’t act responsibly, they will be catastrophic.

Another reason–as if we needed one– to reject the Orange Buffoon.


Connecting the Dots–Inequality Edition

I am one of those tiresome academics who has repeatedly criticized the so-called privatization of government functions.

I say “so-called” because what Americans call privatization is no such thing. Actual privatization would require government to sell off or otherwise abandon a particular activity, and let the private sector handle it. (Much like Margaret Thatcher selling England’s steel mills to private-sector interests.)

What Americans call privatization is more accurately described as contracting out; government retains responsibility for a service and the obligation to fund it, but delivers the service through a third-party surrogate, either for-profit or not-for-profit.

There are certainly instances where choosing such a surrogate makes sense; unfortunately, we Americans tend to embrace fads in government as elsewhere. So rather than engaging in analyses of risk and reward for each proposal to contract, too many public entities have accepted the argument that nongovernmental actors will do a better job, or be less expensive, no matter what is to be outsourced.

Research results strongly suggest otherwise. Sometimes, contracting is appropriate; often it is not.

With the publication of a new in-depth report, In the Public Interest has illustrated the often pernicious effects contracting can have on equality. The report centers on five ways in which contracting out exacerbates inequality:

User-funded contracting. Public budgets have tightened all across the country, largely due to the American public’s unwillingness to pay taxes to support services we continue to demand. As a result, some jurisdictions are allowing contractors to charge fees to end-users to subsidize or completely fund an outsourced service.

This is increasingly happening in areas where citizens have little to no political voice. In private probation, for example, offenders are expected to pay for everything from their own drug testing to the costs of ankle-bracelets, despite the fact that as a group they lack the resources to do so.

Rising rates. Residents of places that have privatized critical public services such as water or transit have experienced steep increases in their rates. Some of these increases can be attributed to the profit motive, but in other jurisdictions—like my own—the increases mask desperate, clandestine efforts to shift the costs of public infrastructure from taxpayers to ratepayers. (In Indianapolis, the city sold the water company, which—thanks to deferred maintenance needs—had a negative value of several billion dollars. As part of the deal, the purchasing entity, a nonprofit, “adjusted” its payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) obligation, upward. That allowed the city to float bonds, repayable from the artificially increased PILOT, and use the proceeds to pave deteriorated streets. The result was to shift the costs of infrastructure repair from general tax revenues to utility ratepayers. It would be hard to think of a more regressive strategy.)

Cutting the social safety net. Programs like Medicaid and food assistance are often subjects to privatization experiments, and the report notes that the impact can be
tragic. Contractors have increasingly taken over critical social services like child foster care services, welfare, the distribution of food assistance, Medicaid, and child support services. But as the report details, the complex social problems faced by families and children who utilize these services are difficult to address using a privatization model, and many social services contracts have financial incentives that inadvertently perpetuate cycles of poverty and divert money from critical programs to corporate profits.

Indiana, again, provides an example. Then-Governor Mitch Daniels attempted to outsource welfare intake; as a result, many recipients were denied benefits to which they were clearly entitled, and others endured long waits and confusing, burdensome processes. The results were so negative that the effort was discontinued, but the ensuing lawsuits cost the state millions of dollars that might otherwise have provided needed services.

A race to the bottom for workers. One of the recurring criticisms of privatization has been that, when private companies take control of a public service, they often slash wages and benefits to cut costs, replacing stable, middle class jobs with poverty-level jobs. The report confirms the criticism.

Similarly, the report underlines increasing recognition that privatizing schools, especially, increases socioeconomic and racial segregation. As the text notes, introducing private interests into things like schools and public parks can—and often does–radically impact access for certain groups.

The report is a sobering reminder that there is a critical difference between procurement—government purchases of such things as street paving or computers—and contracting out delivery of core governmental responsibilities. It turns out that “Weakening democratic control over public goods and services increases economic, political, and racial inequality.”



About That Opioid Epidemic

Credit where credit is due: Medical science and pharmacology have been nothing short of miraculous over the past century. People live longer and healthier lives as a result of breakthroughs in our understanding of how the body works, and how it responds to medications.

But we are also beginning to see some troubling consequences of our reliance on “miracle” drugs. Scientists warn of an emerging resistance to penicillin and other antibiotics, and blame their overuse. And then there is the opioid epidemic, which is yet another example of the problems that emerge when drug use and policy are dictated by the profit motive rather than by medical science and the Hippocratic Oath’s dictum “First, Do No Harm.”

AP and the Center for Public Integrity recently released a study detailing the effects of Big Pharma lobbying on opioid use and abuse. It should give us pause.

Key findings from the reporting:

 Drug companies and allied advocates spent more than $880 million on lobbying and political contributions at the state and federal level over the past decade; by comparison, a handful of groups advocating for opioid limits spent $4 million. The money covered a range of political activities important to the drug industry, including legislation and regulations related to opioids.

The opioid industry and its allies contributed to roughly 7,100 candidates for state-level offices, with the largest amounts going to governors and the lawmakers who control legislative agendas, such as house speakers, senate presidents and health committee chairs.

The drug companies and allied groups have an army of lobbyists averaging 1,350 per year, covering all 50 state capitals.

The opioid lobby’s political spending adds up to more than eight times what the formidable gun lobby recorded for political activities during the same period.

There’s much more.

I know I’m beating a dead horse (what, no medical interventions for the horse?), but there are economic arenas where markets work beautifully, and there are arenas where they don’t. Health care falls in the latter category. “Buying” health care is not equivalent to buying a car or a stove or other consumer good. The parties to the transaction do not possess equivalent information, and the “buyer” needing immediate care is rarely in any shape to go comparison shopping in any event.

The opioid epidemic is just one more example (in a very long list) of what happens when we insist on maintaining markets and encouraging the profit motive in a sector where informational and power asymmetries make genuine competition impossible.

Perhaps–if this election gives us a sane President and legislature–we can begin to correct the situation, by revisiting both the prohibition on government’s ability to negotiate drug prices, and the inclusion of a public option in the Affordable Care Act.

And someday–no doubt after I’m long dead–we might stop letting lobbyists make health policy, get Medicare for All or its equivalent, and join the majority of countries that have recognized that access to health care and lifesaving drugs should not be treated as  profit-generating consumer commodities.