Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

Numbers Can Be Deceiving

Well, the Orange One has delivered a “major” speech on the economy. As usual, very little he said is remotely accurate; here’s just one example from a Time Magazine article deconstructing those claims:

Trump’s claim that one-in-five American households “do not have a single member in the labor force” is also therefore not a reflection of employment problems so much as it’s a recognition that 20% of American households are headed by retirees. Your 85-year-old grandfather and his 82-year-old wife aren’t participating in the labor force—and that’s probably a good thing.

Because we Americans have a tenuous grasp of economics, politicians often feel free to play with the numbers. That’s nothing new (although Trump does take misinformation to a whole new level…)

Last May, the website of the Indiana Institute for Working Families had a discussion of unemployment numbers that explained what those numbers do–and do not–reveal about the health of a state’s economy. Since we are in the middle of a campaign season in which Trump and other candidates will continue to take liberties with those numbers, it is worth revisiting that explanation.

The post itself was triggered by a seemingly rosy employment report: more Hoosiers were working, and the workforce was nearing an all-time high. Good news, right?

Well, as the policy analyst explained, “all that glitters is not gold.” Among the reasons for caution is something called the Labor Force Participation Rate.

 it’s also important to look at the Labor Force Participation Ratio (LFPR)—the ratio of the civilian labor force to the total non-institutionalized civilian population 16 years and older—as a useful tool in determining the overall health of the labor market. A low LFPR means there is slack in the labor market, which puts downward pressure on wages, and holds back growth in household incomes.

In layman’s language, the LFPR means that a decline in the unemployment rate can be explained, at least to some extent, by the number of Hoosiers leaving the labor force. That’s because workers are only counted in the unemployment rate if they are actively seeking work. But the workforce dropout rate isn’t the whole story either.

That brings us to the third and final point, which helps to illustrate declining LFPR; while the state is reaching employment levels (total nonfarm employment) not seen since the summer of 2000, the population of adults in Indiana (16+) has grown by more than a half-million during that time period. In other words, Indiana has added jobs, but not nearly enough to keep up with population growth.

Worse yet, the jobs that the state is adding are low-paying jobs. A recent report from the Indy Star – Economic Gaps Growing Among Hoosiers – encapsulates the conundrum that is the state’s insistence on low road growth strategies: “As the state economy grows and state leaders say pro-business policies have created more than 57,000 new jobs last year alone, poverty is on the rise. That’s right. More jobs, yet more poverty.”

It’s always useful to consider what the statistics tell us–and how the real story differs from the snake-oil on offer.

Do Basic Income Proposals Make Any Sense?

As much of the developed world struggles to address the growth of income inequality, several countries have considered proposals for a guaranteed basic income. There are a number of variations, but the basic idea is that government would eliminate the various forms of social welfare that are currently in place, and would instead send each citizen an annual amount sufficient to cover basic living expenses.

Most of us understand that without economic freedom, guarantees of personal, political and religious freedom aren’t worth much. If your day-to-day existence is consumed with the struggle for survival, the fact that you have freedom of speech is small comfort.

A practical argument for a guaranteed income is efficiency—there would no longer be a need for the massive bureaucratic apparatus currently required to administer social welfare programs, no need to determine eligibility under the different standards for different programs. (Many years ago, conservative economist Milton Friedman proposed something similar: a “negative income tax” that would require payment from those earning above a certain amount, and send remittances to those below that threshold.)

Social science scholars see other benefits. As automation steadily displaces what were once middle-class jobs, receipt of a stipend sufficient to cover basic living expenses would allow people to go back to school, or to train for alternative employment, or work part-time. It would give new mothers—or fathers—the option to take time off to care for newborns; it would similarly facilitate caretaking for gravely ill spouses or parents.

We also might expect that with a lessening of abject poverty, a number of the social ills that accompany privation would improve.

As positive as all that sounds, however, there are reasons why efforts to implement a guaranteed income have fared badly. In Switzerland last year, a basic income proposal on the ballot was overwhelmingly defeated; in 2013 ,the German Parliament debated a similar proposal and rejected it.

The first—and most obvious—negative is cost. Although economists argue about the actual net cost, after savings from eliminating our current expensive patchwork of social programs—any such approach would clearly require tax increases. In the United States, where taxes have become a dirty word even when they are earmarked to support basic services, this fact alone probably presents a politically insurmountable barrier.

Economists and others also question whether receipt of a guaranteed income, no matter how modest, would reduce the incentive to work. There is very little empirical data on that issue; however, there was an interesting experiment in Manitoba, Canada, during the 1970s, called Mincome. It was intended to assess the social impact of a guaranteed annual income, including whether it would cause such disincentives, and if so, to what degree. Apparently, only new mothers and teenagers worked substantially less. Mothers with newborns stopped working because they wanted to stay home longer with their babies, and teenagers worked less because they weren’t under as much pressure to support their families, which resulted in more teenagers graduating. However, participants knew the project was not permanent, and it is impossible to know whether—and how—that knowledge affected the results.

There are a number of other legitimate concerns about so drastic a shift in the way we discharge our obligations to our fellow-citizens.

Given American cultural attitudes that valorize work and demean those who rely on public assistance, it’s safe to say that the United States is unlikely to institute a guaranteed income program (it certainly won’t happen in my lifetime). But even if guaranteed income isn’t the answer, it is worth asking what it should mean to be a member of a political community. What are the reciprocal obligations of the citizen and the state?

What do we owe the nation, and what do we owe each other?

If membership has its privileges, what should those privileges look like?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can Digital Democracy Ever Work?

Is there really something fundamentally different between digital/social media and the traditional press? The Brookings Institution thinks so, positing that the recent Brexit vote in England arguably represents “the first major casualty of the ascent of digital democracy over representative democracy.”

Many technology optimists have assumed that globalization would lead to the democratization of information and decision-making, and also greater cosmopolitanism. Citizens would be better informed, less likely to be silenced, and able to communicate their views more effectively to their leaders. They would also have greater empathy and understanding of other peoples the more they lived next to them, visited their countries, read their news, communicated, and did business with them. Or so the thinking went.

It is hard to dispute the authors’ contention that this world of enhanced democratic decision-making has failed to materialize.

Instead, digital democracy — the ability to receive information in almost real time through mass media and to make one’s voice heard through social media — has contributed to polarization, gridlock, dissatisfaction and misinformation.

In our “post-fact world,” thanks to social media and the internet, a lie (or–as the article notes– “better yet a half-lie) if told enough times becomes truth.”

A third result of digital democracy…is the political echo chamber. Social media, rather than creating connections with people who possess differing views and ideologies, tends to reinforce prejudices. As the psychologist Nicholas DiFonzo has noted, “Americans across the political spectrum tend to trust the news media (and ‘facts’ provided by the media) less than their own social group.” This makes it easier for views and rumours to circulate and intensify within like-minded groups. Similar digital gerrymandering was evident in the EU Referendum in Britain and the polarization is palpable in the Indian online political space.

Finally, instant information has increased the theatricality of politics. With public statements and positions by governments, political parties and individual leaders now broadcast to constituents in real time, compromise, a necessary basis of good governance, has become more difficult. When portrayed as a betrayal of core beliefs, compromise often amounts to political suicide. Political grandstanding also contributes to legislative gridlock, with elected representatives often resorting to walkoutssit-ins, or insults — all manufactured for maximum viral effect — instead of trying to reach solutions behind closed doors. Even as ease of travel allows legislators to spend more time in their constituencies, making them more sensitized to their constituents’ concerns, less gets done at the national or supranational level. It is a trend that, once again, applies equally to the United StatesEurope, and India.

The unintended consequences of digital democracy — misinformation and discontent, polarization and gridlock — mean that the boundary between politician and troll is blurring. The tone of democratic politics increasingly reflects that of anonymous online discourse: nasty, brutish, and short. And successful politicians are increasingly those who are able to take advantage of the resulting sentiments. Exploiting divisions, appealing to base instincts, making outlandish claims, resorting to falsehoods, and pooh-poohing details and expertise.

“Exploiting divisions, appealing to base instincts, making outlandish claims, resorting to falsehoods, and pooh-poohing details and expertise”…  certainly describes Donald Trump.

When I was a new lawyer, the partner for whom I was doing most of my work had a saying: “There’s only one legal question, and that’s what do we do?”

If it is difficult to argue with the Brookings critique of digital democracy–and it is–his question becomes not just pertinent, but critical. What do we do?

What can we do?

Getting to Know Mike Pence

Hoosiers have gotten to know Mike Pence during his tenure as our dense and divisive Governor; that familiarity was why he was on track to lose his bid for re-election. But the rest of the country is just now getting an in-depth look at what, in Pence’s view, passes for policy. 

One such recent “introduction” began with this overview:

Much has been made of Republican Gov. Mike Pence’s record on LGBTQ issues. In 2000, when he was running for U.S. representative, Pence wrote that “Congress should oppose any effort to recognize homosexual’s [sic] as a ‘discreet and insular minority’ [sic] entitled to the protection of anti-discrimination laws similar to those extended to women and ethnic minorities.” He also said that funds meant to help people living with HIV or AIDS should no longer be given to organizations that provide HIV prevention services because they “celebrate and encourage” homosexual activity. Instead, he proposed redirecting those funds to anti-LGBTQ “conversion therapy” programs, which have been widely discredited by the medical community as being ineffective and dangerous.

The real focus of the story, however, is on Pence’s longstanding war on a woman’s right to control her own reproduction–not just his efforts to de-fund Planned Parenthood, or his signing of an outrageous, punitive and unconstitutional anti-choice law, but his less well-known diversion of millions of dollars in public funds that were supposed to provide food and health care for needy families to anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers.

Gov. Pence, who declined multiple requests for an interview with Rewire, has been outspoken about his anti-choice agenda… . people in need of abortion care are forced to take significant time off work, arrange child care, and possibly pay for a place to stay overnight in order to obtain it.

This environment is why a contract quietly signed by Pence last fall with the crisis pregnancy center umbrella organization Real Alternatives is so potentially dangerous for Indiana residents seeking abortion: State-subsidized crisis pregnancy centers not only don’t provide abortion but seek to persuade people out of seeking abortion, thus limiting their options.

Adding insult to injury, the three and a half million dollars going to Real Alternatives came from TANF funds.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, TANF is explicitly meant to clothe and feed children, or to create programs that help prevent “non-marital childbearing,” and Indiana’s contract with Real Alternatives does neither. The contract stipulates that Real Alternatives and its subcontractors must “actively promote childbirth instead of abortion.” The funds, the contract says, cannot be used for organizations that will refer clients to abortion providers or promote contraceptives as a way to avoid unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.

Real Alternatives is an anti-choice organization run by a Pennsylvania lawyer who has no medical experience or background. The organization finances, and refers clients to, crisis pregnancy centers that encourage clients to carry their pregnancies to term and “helps” them decide between adoption or child rearing. “Counseling” and classes teach that abstinence is the only way to avoid unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

The article is lengthy and well researched, and it accurately portrays the unctuous Mike Pence that Hoosiers know so well.

We can just hope that the rest of the country comes to know him as well as we do. Quickly.

Can We Talk About Trade? Probably Not.

When I teach policy analysis, certain barriers to sound analysis tend to recur. At least three of those barriers are pertinent to the current debate about America’s trade policies.

  • Americans tend to be inappropriately “bipolar.” Too many partisans, Left and Right, approach complex policy issues with a “bright line” ideology–doing X is either good or bad. Period. Their world is divided between good guys and “evil-doers,” (to use Bush the Second’s terminology) and there is no middle ground.
  • Although there are certainly some policies that are simply wrong, in most cases, the proper approach to analysis is to ask “how,” not “whether.” That’s because, in most cases, the devil really is in the details; otherwise good policies can fail because they are not properly developed or implemented, and otherwise problematic approaches can be rescued by careful development and thoughtful application.
  • In today’s America, increasing numbers of policy domains are complicated and highly technical. Even well-informed citizens are unable to make independent judgments about the best approach to such matters–examples include telecommunications, arms control, tax policies and multiple other areas. We are increasingly dependent upon experts in the field to assess proposed laws and regulations–and we are increasingly suspicious of the bona fides of those experts.

These challenges to sound policy analysis are front and center in the arguments about trade agreements like the TPP.

On the Left, we have a number of activists who believe that trade agreements inevitably cost American jobs, no matter what their content. This is demonstrably false. Outsourcing and poorly drafted agreements certainly undermine both domestic employment and compensation, but trade also generates jobs and economic growth. According to the U.S.Department of Commerce, in 2008 the United States exported nearly $1.7 trillion in goods and services, exports that supported more than 10 million full- and part-time jobs and accounted for 12.7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). (If I find more recent data, I’ll update this post.)

On the Right, we have proponents who support any and all “free trade” proposals, no matter whether the agreements safeguard workers or the environment, and no matter how unbalanced the agreement, because “all trade is good.”

I haven’t followed all of the pronouncements, pro and con, about TPP, but in those I have heard, not one person on either side has identified provisions of that proposed agreement with which he or she agreed or disagreed. It was all or nothing–good or bad.

International trade is complicated, and the negative consequences that partisans cite aren’t necessarily the result of trade itself: the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think-tank, attributes a significant amount of manufacturing job loss to currency manipulation. EPI says that “Global currency manipulation is one of the most important causes of growing U.S. trade deficits, and of unemployment and slow economic growth in the United States and Europe.”

Like technology, trade both displaces workers and creates new kinds of employment.

My point is not to weigh in on the merits of the TPP. Like most Americans, I simply do not know enough–about the terms of the proposed agreement, about the likely cost-benefit ratio, about the context within which the agreement would be implemented–to come to a reasoned conclusion. Like most Americans, I must rely upon the evaluations of people whose expertise and knowledge I trust.

Which brings me to what I have come to identify as one of the most serious problems America faces: a public in which skepticism, cynicism, and a pervasive lack of trust is rampant. We don’t trust the media (or more accurately, we trust only the media sources that confirm our pre-existing biases), we don’t trust government (the result of thirty-plus years of anti-government rhetoric), we don’t trust members of that “other” political party, and increasingly, we don’t trust each other. We sure as hell don’t trust the experts–those elitists!

It’s hard to make policy in that sort of environment.