Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

Some Damage Will Be Permanent

As the Trump Administration’s dreary parade of discredited assertions, retrograde policies and corrupt practices marches on, I remind myself that destruction is also opportunity; once the current cabinet is gone, competent public servants can address agency shortcomings–both old and new.

I console myself by imagining a new administrator doing a thorough review of agency policies and regulations, jettisoning those that have outlived their usefulness and tightening up those that are needed. The Trumpian chaos can provide an opening to rethink, re-arrange, revisit. Sure, damage was done by the barbarians, but (assuming a really big wave in November) it can be fixed. It can even be made better!

But not all of it.

The Trump administration’s plan to shrink four land-based national monuments has provoked howls of anguish from environmental groups, Native American tribes and some businesses, such as the outdoors company Patagonia.

Accompanying changes to protected monuments in the oceans – vastly larger areas than their land-based counterparts – have received less attention, but could have major consequences for the livelihoods and ecosystems dependent upon the marine environment.

Ryan Zinke, the secretary of the interior, has recommended to Donald Trump that three sprawling marine monuments, one in the Atlantic and two in the Pacific, be either opened up to the commercial fishing industry or reduced in size, or both.

According to marine biologists, these “blue parks ” are home to, and protect, unique species. They shelter a wealth of biodiversity and special habitats.

In 2009, George W Bush created the Pacific Remote Islands national monument around seven islands and atolls in the central Pacific. The monument, subsequently expanded by Barack Obama to become what was the largest marine protected area in the world, comprises “the last refugia for fish and wildlife species rapidly vanishing from the remainder of the planet”, according to the Fish & Wildlife Service, boasting creatures such as sea turtles, dolphins, whales, sharks and giant clams.

Evidently, fishing interests have complained about these areas being made off-limits, and as we have seen with multiple issues, this is an administration exceptionally receptive to the complaints of business and industry.

“This is a spectacular place that contains animals incredibly vulnerable to drilling, fishing, noise and pollution,” said Peter Baker, director of US oceans, north-east, at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

“It shouldn’t be too much to ask to protect 2% of the US’s exclusive economic zone off the Atlantic coast for future generations. Allowing commercial fishing there is really a distortion of why you would have a national monument in the first place.”

Baker said the New England Fisheries Management Council, which Zinke indicated should determine fishing restrictions in the monument, has a “horrible track record” of overfishing and conflicts of interest.

Assuming a return to competent governance, we can repair a lot of the damage. For one thing, we can address–and hopefully redress– the shocking deterioration of our National Parks, recently the subject of a depressing series in the Guardian.

But there’s a lot we can’t repair. And the wrecking crew that is the Trump Administration is counting on that.

 

More Bad News About The Tax “Reform” Bill

I have a feeling I should keep the title of this post for repeated future use.

It’s hard to know which of the damaging provisions of the tax bill were intentional, and which were the result of the unseemly haste and secrecy that marked its passage. As I have previously noted, scholars of philanthropy have predicted that it will cause a significant decline in charitable giving. (And yes, it would be nice if people gave money because they simply felt generous, but in the real world, deductibility that makes the gift less costly to the giver is a pretty important factor.)

Now we have reports that the tax bill will dramatically reduce the production of (much needed) low-income housing and the preservation of historic structures.

According to the New York Times

SAN FRANCISCO — The last time that Congress approved a sweeping overhaul of the federal tax code, in 1986, it created a tax credit meant to encourage the private sector to invest in affordable housing. It has grown into a $9 billion-a-year social program that has funded the construction of some three million apartments for low-income residents.

But the Republican tax plan approved last month amounts to a vast cutback, making it much less likely that such construction will continue apace. Because the tax rate for corporations has been lowered, the value of the credits — which corporations get in return for their investments — is also lower.

“It’s the greatest shock to the affordable-housing system since the Great Recession,” said Michael Novogradac, managing partner of Novogradac & Company, a national accounting firm based in San Francisco.

According to an analysis by his firm, the new tax law will reduce the growth of subsidized affordable housing by 235,000 units over the next decade, compounding an existing shortage.

Then there’s a report from Shelterforce about the effect of the tax bill on a Chicago neighborhood revitalization project and other projects like it.

Urban and rural communities throughout the country have historic buildings that can be preserved and repurposed for multiple community needs. 

In addition to revitalizing communities such as Uptown and spurring local economic growth, the HTC returns more to the U.S. Treasury than it takes. According to a study commissioned by the National Park Service, since inception, $25.2 billion in federal tax credits have generated more than $29.8 billion in federal tax revenue from historic rehabilitation projects. The credit generates new economic activity by leveraging private dollars that not only preserve historic buildings but also create jobs; through 2016, the rehabilitation of 42,293 historic buildings has created more than 2.4 million jobs, according to the Historic Tax Credit Coalition.

Though HTCs were preserved in the tax bill passed by Congress, its value was diminished. Instead of allowing investors to take the full value of the credit when a building opens, as they can now, it parcels out the credit over five years. Historic preservationists fear this change will decrease the attractiveness of the credit and consequently negatively impact its pricing. A project seeking $2 million of Historic Tax Credit investments could lose as much as $400,000 in valuable capital. Historic rehabilitation projects frequently have higher costs, greater design challenges, and weaker market locations—all of which can already cause lender and investor bias against such investments.

Another casualty of tax reform is the demise of tax credit bonds. While Private Activity Bonds survived the final assault, new key tools such as Qualified Energy Conservation Bonds (QECB) did not.

Yessir. Some tax “reform.”

 

 

Is This Really What Jesus Would Do?

The administration presided over by our thrice-married, p***y-grabbing, porn-star-fornicating President has announced its latest effort to protect religiosity.

The Conscience and Religious Freedom Division has been established to restore federal enforcement of our nation’s laws that protect the fundamental and unalienable rights of conscience and religious freedom…. The creation of the new division will provide HHS with the focus it needs to more vigorously and effectively enforce existing laws protecting the rights of conscience and religious freedom, the first freedom protected in the Bill of Rights.

The “religious freedom” being protected by the new division and rules is the freedom of medical practitioners to deny medical care if providing that care would be “inconsistent” with their religious beliefs.  (Did the Good Samaritan check the sexual orientation of the injured man he helped? I forgot that part of the story…)

The Administration is clearly unconcerned with the religious beliefs or health needs of women who need reproductive services like birth control. The new rules allow almost anyone who works in the health field to refuse to provide a wide array of services; adding insult to injury, there is no requirement that religiously objecting doctors refer patients elsewhere.

Planned Parenthood warns that the rule could allow a pharmacist to refuse to fill a prescription for birth control, doctors to deny hormone therapy to transgender patients, and  pediatricians to refuse to treat the child of gay parents.

An Atlantic article looked at the implications.

There are already federal laws that protect medical personnel from being required to provide abortions. In addition, nearly every state also allows health-care providers to refuse to perform abortions, and 12 states allow them to refuse to provide contraceptives. In six states, even pharmacists are allowed to refuse to fill birth-control prescriptions.

According to reproductive-rights groups, the problem is these laws often mean patients who are denied services aren’t then referred to a doctor who will provide the care. According to one poll, only 57 percent of doctors nationally believe objecting physicians must refer patients to an accommodating provider. “Only in a couple of states are patients given information and referrals,” says Elizabeth Nash of the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute.

Given the language of the new regulation, the “protection” could be extensive.

“Under the new rule, you could have translators who refuse to translate for a woman undergoing tubal ligation,” says Elizabeth Sepper, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

Those crafting the new rules explain that requiring objecting physicians to refer patients to willing providers would also violate their tender religious consciences.

The proposed rule defines “referral” as providing “any information,” including a phone number or website on a pamphlet, about a health service that the provider disagrees with.

The Administration’s uber-solicitous concern for the religious sensibilities of providers is certainly not matched by any concern for patients, whose rights are far more likely to be violated even under current law.

In 2015, a lesbian couple in Michigan had a pediatrician decline to care for their six-day-old infant, Bay, because, as the doctor later explained to the couple, “after much prayer following your prenatal, I felt that I would not be able to develop the personal patient-doctor relationships that I normally do with my patients.”

Another case, also in Michigan, involved Tamesha Means, a woman who was rushed to her county’s Catholic hospital when her water broke at 18 weeks into her pregnancy. “Based on the bishops’ religious directives, the hospital sent her home twice even though Tamesha was in excruciating pain,” as the ACLU put it. The hospital staff did not tell her that she could, and probably should, end the pregnancy, according to the ACLU’s summary. Ultimately, Means returned to the hospital a third time, this time with an infection, and miscarried.

Critics of this new level of regulation point out that it is transparent political pandering; unlike the numerous cases where patients have been endangered, instances where providers have been discriminated against are vanishingly rare. As the article concluded,

“They’re setting up this office and using a lot of taxpayer dollars to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist,” Fogel says. “Health systems are already pretty good at accommodating people who have a genuine objection to participating in a service.”

Swartz agrees, saying the problem of conscientiously objecting physicians “is like voter fraud. Those instances are one in a million.”

Rare though they might be, these cases will now merit special attention by the U.S. government.

Perhaps this new division is protecting “Christian” doctors in return for that “mulligan” Evangelicals gave Trump…

 

 

Monetizing Motherhood

As long as we’re on the subject of women…

Some countries have social policies that make it less stressful to combine motherhood and career. Not the good old US of A.

In the absence of benefits like widespread maternity leave and accessible and affordable day care, American women who want to combine careers and motherhood are making “interesting” choices.

About two dozen women ate cheese and canapés in a swanky Midtown Manhattan building in early December. It could have been mistaken for a networking event if it weren’t for the women’s singular focus – egg freezing.

Formally called “oocyte cryopreservation”, egg freezing has boomed over the last decade. Since 2009, there has been an 11-fold increase in the number of women who choose to “bank” their eggs. During that time, the American Society of Reproductive Medicine officially removed its “experimental” designation.

“It’s a conversation more women need to talk about, just like miscarriages and periods,” said Florence Ng, a 35-year-old real estate broker in New York City who froze her eggs this year. “These are really important and relevant today.”

Now, Wall Street is taking notice of the fertility industry. Analysts see it as one “ripe for a merger and acquisition cycle”, according to one group.

As the article notes, a new breed of fertility clinic is selling a promise: that capitalism and technology can buy women time. And this being the good old US of A, where government provides very little in the way of a social infrastructure, “entrepreneurs” see dollar signs in career women’s dilemma.

“The US Fertility Clinic market has come of age and is ripe for a merger and acquisition cycle,” wrote Capstone Partners, an investment banking firm, in early 2017.

“The wave is already beginning,” the firm wrote, ticking off a raft of private equity and venture capital firms that recently purchased clinics: TA Associates, MTS Health Partners, Lee Equity Partners, TPG Biotech, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Extend Fertility is partially owned by a hedge fund called North Peak Capital LLC.

“The trend for couples to marry later in life and to delay starting a family in pursuit of professional careers and financial security is also boosting demand for fertility services and accelerating industry growth,” wrote Capstone.

Men, of course, can make new sperm throughout their lives; we women are born with all of our eggs. If we use them to make babies in our 20s, most of those eggs will be good. But as we age, we’ll not only have fewer eggs, but a higher proportion them will be abnormal. By our mid-40s, most fertility doctors believe it will require donor eggs to get pregnant.

Egg freezing, once reserved for cancer patients, is increasingly sold as the solution to this problem…

Women are encouraged to freeze their eggs as young as possible – in their 20s preferably – to ensure the largest number are viable.

“Freeze your eggs!” said one Extend Fertility ad on Instagram. “Take control of your biological future – freeze your eggs and freeze time”. Extend pitches testimonials from women who have already frozen their eggs as “masters of time”.

Is this really the way we want Americans to address the issue of women in the workforce? Do we really want to make motherhood a consumer item, convenient only for those who can afford the blessings of technology? What about women who have “jobs” rather than careers, and cannot afford pricey egg freezing? What about women who prefer to have children while they are relatively young, rather than waiting until they are mistaken for their child’s grandmother–if they can conceive at all?

Other countries provide well-baby clinics, maternity supports, child care and other social supports that allow women to participate in the economy while providing for their children.

What does the lack of support for working mothers say about the value Americans place on women and children?

 

Random Thoughts/Observations On Government Shutdown

Partisans are playing the blame game–pointing fingers and accusing the “other guy” of being responsible for the government’s inability to function.

It seems fairly obvious to me that those in charge–those in power– are most culpable; with the GOP dominating all three branches of Government, trying to lay the blame at the doorstep of the emasculated Dems reminds me of the divorce lawyer who told the judge that her client’s wife was so annoying, she caused  him to beat her. (That’s a true story, by the way.)

A few scattered observations–

  • it is absolutely unconscionable to use children as bargaining chips and hostages. Republicans’ willingness to keep the “Dreamers” in limbo and hold out funding for children’s health in order to play political games is simply despicable. (It’s also stupid: 87% of Americans want DACA reinstated.)
  • Republicans (and a few Democrats) who were willing to ignore the ongoing anguish of 800,000 DACA children in order to fund government for another couple of weeks were either naive (GOP promises to “get to” DACA “soon” were transparent bullshit–especially since Trump’s uninformed demands change daily) or more concerned about perceived political optics than justice for children who depend upon them.
  • Indiana Senator Donnelly was one of those Democrats. Donnelly has been a constant disappointment: he was willing to defund Planned Parenthood (he evidently believes his religious beliefs deserve government support but mine don’t), and he was willing to screw over the Dreamers, presumably because he is (theoretically) a Democrat running for re-election in a red state. Perhaps I’m the one being naive, but I think voters–red or blue–are more likely to reward principled behavior than political pandering. That said, I will vote for Donnelly in November because–acute disappointment though he is–he will cast his first vote to eject Mitch McConnell (aka the most evil man in America) from leadership, and because the Republican Trumpers who want to oppose him are even worse–and in Indiana, a vote for a third-party candidate is a vote for the Republican. This will be a “lesser of two evils” choice.
  • If there is a bright spot to the shutdown, it should mean that–at least while government isn’t open for business–the demolition crew that Trump has installed in lieu of competent administrators won’t be able to work on destroying their agencies.

And finally….If we needed any more evidence that the federal government is broken, and that Republicans are disinterested in fixing it, or for that matter, doing anything other than enrich their donors, I think this last year–culminating in this Keystone Kos episode–should provide it.

I know it’s morning, but excuse me while I go pour myself a stiff drink.