Another Last Straw

Every morning since January 20th, Americans have awakened with foreboding: what new attack on reason and sanity has our tweeter-in-chief launched today? And what excuses for inexcusable behavior will spineless GOP Senators and Representatives offer this time?

Optimists wil predict that this (insert latest outrage) will be the final straw. Realists respond that, given the invertebrates in Congress and the ship  of fools that is the cabinet, it won’t be.

Yesterday, we woke to discover that Trump unilaterally and abruptly ended the Obamacare subsidies that make health insurance affordable for millions of Americans. Every single health-care organization in America opposed this action, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Donald Trump, it’s that he’s a know-nothing unwilling to listen to people who actually know something.

Congress failed to “repeal and replace” the ACA, so Trump has evidently decided to simply destroy it. The fact that many people will die is obviously of no importance to Mr. Me Me Me. In his zeal to destroy the ACA (and all vestiges of Obama’s legacy), he had already cut the enrollment period for 2018 in half, cut 90% out of the advertising budget and eviscerated the so-called “navigator program” that helps people through the ACA enrollment process.

At the Washington Post, Catherine Rampell warns that Trump’s sabotage is likely to destroy the system.

President Trump has made a lot of promises on health care.

Somehow, though, I don’t remember him promising stadiums of cheering fans that he’d take away protections for preexisting conditions, increase deductibles, spike premiums, eliminate basic coverage requirements and, more generally, destabilize the individual health-insurance market.

After explaining what yesterday’s Executive Order will and will not do, Rampell concludes that this impulsive and destructive act was “pretty much on brand for this nihilistic president: When you can’t come up with a new system that works, just blow up the old one.”

One of the most maddening aspects of Trump’s Order is that withdrawing the subsidies will actually cost the federal government money. A lot of money. The Kaiser Family Foundation has estimated that “savings” of 10 billion dollars would be offset by a rise in premium tax credits to 12.3 billion. In other words, the federal government will be paying  2.3 billion dollars more by making health insurance unaffordable once again for untold numbers of Americans.

The CBO projects that cutting off the subsidies will cause premiums to rise 20 percent by 2018 and 25 percent by 2020, and will increase the budget deficit by nearly $200 billion by 2026.

It’s really expensive to screw over the American public, but don’t expect the man with the tacky gold toilet to worry about budgets.

A number of people have compared Donald Trump to Richard Nixon. Admittedly, there are parallels:  Nixon was also mentally ill, also a bigot, and also willing to sacrifice American lives for political advantage.  However, despite his paranoia and some truly unforgivable–even treasonous– decisions, Nixon was intelligent and informed. He knew how government worked and what it was for, and he made some good decisions, including creation of the EPA and opening relations with China.

Trump is profoundly ignorant of government and policy, is clearly uninterested in learning, and is the loosest of loose canons. In ten short months, the man Rex Tillerson has (accurately) described as a “fucking moron” has made America an international laughing-stock, and his irrational behaviors toward North Korea and Iran have brought us dangerously close to nuclear war.

With Trump, I worry that the final straw will be a mushroom cloud.

Economic Development Develops

Every so often, we need to take our eyes off the clown show in Washington, D.C., and consider what’s happening elsewhere. For example, the much-hyped competition for Amazon’s second headquarters.

I hate to be Debby Downer, but that competition is an excellent example of what’s wrong with current approaches to economic development. Economic development offices around the country participate in what is nationally a zero-sum game–attracting businesses from one locality to another, and spending lavishly to do so. (According to several sources, states and counties have awarded over $1.3 billion in incentives just to attract Amazon’s fulfillment centers.)

As a Brookings Institute report recently noted, this approach to job creation is problematic.

The most obvious is that in each of these cases, Amazon was going to come with or without incentives. It is a core tenet of Amazon’s strategy to be able to rapidly deliver products directly to people’s homes, increasingly with same day service, so they must have a major presence in every large region. Seemingly every metro area we’ve worked in over the past several years has highlighted the attraction of an Amazon facility as a major local economic development success story. (A quick web search confirmed the presence or recent announcement of one or more major Amazon fulfillment centers in or near each of the 40 largest US metro regions.) In these cases, state incentives make no sense. And county incentives are used only to influence selection of the actual site within a region, thus pitting local jurisdictions against each other to claim a political win, with no actual competitive benefit to the regional economy….

Another issue is spatial mismatch. In our work across the country, many employers such as Amazon express frustration in not being able to find enough workers—while at the same time, workers complain of not having access to good jobs. This problem is predictable. While traditional retail jobs are spread throughout metro areas to be near customers (and by default, the workforce), warehouse and logistics operations (such as Amazon’s) consolidate employees under one roof on the periphery of the metro…. The Amazon jobs that replaced these are less accessible to many of the lower-skilled employees that are best suited to fill them because workers do not live nearby. Lack of access to transit, zoning decisions that limit nearby affordable housing, and childcare responsibilities severely limit the number of workers in a given region for which this type of job commute makes sense.

The Amazon Headquarters frenzy highlights what economic development has become; a system that revolves around government giveaways to corporations.

There’s a better way. And the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce has recently partnered with Brookings to research that better way, culminating in a report titled “Rebuilding the Dream: Inclusive Growth in the Indianapolis Region.” It begins with a recognition that the economy is “misaligned between employer needs and workforce capability, and riddled with barriers to upward mobility,” and it urges policymakers to focus on removing those barriers and creating the conditions for inclusive and sustainable growth.

Rather than a competition to bring new employers to the region, the report advocates an emphasis on expanding companies that are already here, especially but not exclusively in so-called “advanced” industries (tech, very broadly defined). If those companies are to grow, however, they need access to a workforce capable of doing the jobs they are creating. The report enumerates the multiple barriers those potential employees face, and recommends a comprehensive and strategic approach to their removal: improved transportation, childcare,  health care innovations, language and training opportunities, etc.

This makes so much sense.

Rather than prospecting for companies willing to relocate and then bribing them with our tax dollars, the Chamber wants us to spend those dollars on measures that will reduce the mismatch between employer needs and the ability of unemployed or underemployed residents to meet those needs.

This is an investment that would pay real–rather than PR– dividends. Policymakers should endorse it.

Footing The Bill For Proselytizing

The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette has reported on Indiana’s school voucher program–the largest such program in the United States–and has followed that report with a wider-ranging, scathing editorial listing additional issues with the program.

The newspaper’s revelations didn’t surprise those of us who have been watching what I can only call “the voucher scam.” Whatever the motives of the people who originally supported these programs–and I know that some of them were sincerely trying to improve educational opportunities for poor children– vouchers have become the weapon of choice for theocrats who have long felt threatened by public education.

As the article notes,

Taxpayers in Indiana are footing the bill for student scholarships to schools that push ultraconservative and sometimes bigoted viewpoints.

More than 30 private schools participating in Indiana’s school voucher program use textbooks from companies that teach homosexuality as immoral, environmentalism as spiritually bankrupt and evolution as an evil idea.

Of the 318 private schools participating in Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program – a voucher program that uses public funding to help students afford private schools – 36 use at least one textbook or piece of curriculum created by either Abeka or Bob Jones University Press.

The reporters checked the websites of 131 Christian schools that participate in Indiana’s “Choice” program, looking for details about their curricula. If a school didn’t have a website, or the information on the site was inadequate, they reached out via phone and email. Most failed to respond.

Who are Abeka and Bob Jones University Press? How do their textbooks compare with standard classroom materials?

Abeka, a textbook company, is affiliated with Pensacola Christian College, a far-right religious university in Florida that bans “dancing” and “satanic practices” in its code of conduct. Bob Jones University Press is affiliated with its eponymous university, which outlawed interracial dating until the year 2000.

According to education scholars, the textbooks produced by Abeka and Bob Jones are filled with inaccurate history and distorted science. A  historian is quoted in the article saying that the history texts don’t teach anything “that could accurately be called history;” instead, she said, “They are essentially proselytizing for Protestant Christianity.”

In a middle school American history textbook published by Abeka, titled “America: Land I Love,” Satan is blamed for the spread of the theory of evolution and modern psychology, according to a book procured by HuffPost.

A high school world history textbook from Bob Jones University Press also pushes falsehoods and stereotypes. One chapter asserts that it was Jewish religious leaders who plotted to kill Jesus Christ, a myth that has long been used to fuel anti-Semitic sentiment.

Of the 318 schools that currently participate in Indiana’s voucher program, more than 95 percent are explicitly religious. According to the Journal Gazette’s calculations, at least 4,240 children receiving vouchers funded by tax dollars attend schools that use the Abeka or Bob Jones’ textbooks.

Of course, not all participating schools use these texts, and some 34,000 students have now participated in Indiana’s voucher program, so it is only fair to consider how they are doing overall. After all, voucher programs have now been around long enough to be evaluated.

The news isn’t good.

The research simply doesn’t support the rosy claims made by proponents. In Indiana, studies show that children using vouchers have an average annual loss of 0.10 standard deviations in mathematics when compared to comparable public school students; that same research found no statistically meaningful difference in reading.  Research from other states has yielded even more disappointing results.

These schools may be bringing children to Jesus, but they aren’t improving their educations.

So–let’s sum up what we know: Significant resources are being diverted from Indiana’s struggling public schools in order to send funds to private religious schools that do not improve children’s performance in reading, and significantly worsen their performance in math. An indeterminate number of those schools substitute extremist religious indoctrination for accurate instruction in history and science.

This is the Mike Pence “model” that Betsy DeVos wants to replicate nationwide.

These are your tax dollars at work.

Trashing The Country

I see that Scott Pruitt intends to roll back the Clean Power Plan put in place during the Obama administration.  Pruitt’s devotion to fossil fuel interests and his determination to eviscerate the agency he heads is, if anything, stronger than ever. To hell with clean air and water, or for that matter, the future of the planet.

The Guardian recently looked at another of the Obama-era regulations that Trump and Pruitt reversed.

A ban on bottled water in 23 national parks prevented up to 2m plastic bottles from being used and discarded every year, a US national park service study found. That is equivalent to up to 326 barrels of oil worth of emissions, 419 cubic yards of landfill space and 111,743lb of plastic, according to the May study.

Despite that, the Trump administration reversed the bottled water ban just three months later, a decision that horrified conservationists and pleased the bottled water industry.

Donald Trump’s primary policy motivation has been clear from the moment he assumed office: the erasure of Barack Obama’s legacy, no matter what the policy, no matter how good for America, no matter how good endorsing it would be politically for Trump himself. If Obama did it, Trump is determined to undo it.

For whatever reason–Obama’s skin color (Trump’s racism is no longer in question), his devastating take-down of Trump at that correspondent’s dinner, or some other motivation lurking in Trump’s clearly disordered mind–the only consistent thread in the disaster that is this administration is the determined and vicious assault on Obama’s legacy.

Did Obama want clean water and breathable air? Then those things aren’t important. Did he want to protect our national parks from pollution and despoiling? “Freedom” means letting plastic bottles proliferate!

The plan to curb pollution in America’s most famous wilderness areas was spurred when arguably its most famous park, the Grand Canyon, banned the sale of plastic water bottles in its gift shops, according to the report. Approximately 331 million people visit US national parks each year.

The program was meant to support a “life cycle” approach to plastic, which activists say is the largest global threat to the environment behind climate change. One million plastic bottles are sold per minute, according to a Guardian analysis. The top six drink companies in the world use an average of just 6.6% recycled plastic.

At the same time, new research has shown that plastics which find their way into the sea have entered the food supply. Scientists have found plastic particles in sea salt, honey, fish, beer and tap water.

When the parks began banning bottled drinking water in 2011, they installed hydration stations with free water. But that didn’t stop the bottled water industry from accusing the government of “infringing the freedom of families to decide for themselves how to hydrate.”

Think I’m kidding?

“It should be up to our visitors to decide how best to keep themselves and their families hydrated during a visit to a national park, particularly during hot summer visitation periods,” said the acting service director, Michael Reynolds.

You can’t make this shit up.

 

Talking About What We Understand

One of the bloggers I follow is Doug Masson, a thoughtful and impressively erudite observer of the circus that is current American politics. I was especially struck by his recent post on the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, and mainland American preoccupations.

Puerto Rico is suffering. Like a lot. 3.4 million Americans have been without power for 5 days and the prospect of getting the electric grid up and running seems to be distant. 90% of the distribution system may have been destroyed. 91% of cellphone sites are also out of service, according to the FCC.

Despite this crisis, I’ve been hearing more about whether football players will stand or kneel during a game. Judging from the emotional energy spent online during the past couple of days, the manner in which sports professionals choose to observe the national anthem and conduct their protest is more alarming than the prospect of 3.4 million Americans facing a humanitarian crisis. Hell, I’m guilty of knowing and talking more about Kaepernick than what’s going on in San Juan which is, by the way, the only Puerto Rican city I can name without looking at a map.

Masson is certainly not alone in pointing out the difference in what I might call the “emotional investment” in these two issues. He is, however, the only one to point out a disquieting reason for that difference: something he identifies as the “bike shedding effect.” That is a term I had not previously encountered (and I’m not entirely clear on its derivation even after reading his post). Masson shares an illustration:

He provides the example of a fictional committee whose job was to approve the plans for a nuclear power plant spending the majority of its time on discussions about relatively minor but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bike shed, while neglecting the proposed design of the plant itself, which is far more important and a far more difficult and complex task.

This example really hit home, because it was reminiscent of an experience my husband shared with me some twenty years ago. He was the architect for a new school building, and he was presenting the preliminary plans at a school board meeting. He anticipated a number of significant questions about the design–everything from room sizes to emergency exits to features affecting pedagogy–but the only discussion the board engaged in centered on the size of the elevator for handicapped individuals, and whether it should be large enough to accommodate one wheel chair or two.

The Board spent over an hour on that issue. No other was raised.

My husband was dumbfounded. On his way out of the meeting, he ran into a friend and shared his befuddlement; the friend–who was pretty savvy–just smiled and said, “You know, people talk about what they can understand.”

As Masson goes on to explain in his post, it’s relatively simple to form an opinion about what respect for the flag entails (and whether and how people of color should complain when the country doesn’t live up to its ideals). Whether those attitudes are knee-jerk or considered, they’re relatively straightforward.

Puerto Rico is another matter. Significant numbers of mainland Americans aren’t even aware that Puerto Ricans are American citizens (I have my doubts whether Trump knew that before the hurricane–after all, they’re brown people). Relatively few of us have traveled there, have relatives there, know much about it, or know what FEMA is or should be doing in the face of massive devastation.

So we talk about what we (think we) understand. That’s rather obviously what Trump is doing with his diatribes against the NFL.

The problem is, as America’s problems mount, it becomes very clear that there are so many pressing, important issues that most of us don’t understand. (Guess what! Obamacare and the ACA are the same thing…) But rather than informing ourselves about them–we focus on  recent TV shows, or an outrageous celebrity, or “those people” who disagree with us.

And then we wonder why democracy doesn’t work.