Tag Archives: budget

And The Hits Keep Coming

Very few voters know–or care– much about the census. Counting the people who live in the land between “sea and shining sea” is one of those boring, technical tasks that government does, but  I doubt that a single vote has ever been cast because the voter felt that  it was done well or poorly.

Just because the census doesn’t arouse much in the way of passion, however, doesn’t make it unimportant. In fact, it is very important.

The Constitution requires that the count be conducted every year that ends in zero–that is, every ten years. The census ensures that citizens of each state have the “correct” number of representatives, a number based upon population. It also tells us just how diverse the country is, which categories are growing and which are shrinking. One of the most important functions of the census is that it gives analysts–not just government analysts, but those working for a multitude of businesses and nonprofit organizations– the data they need in order to make important decisions and avoid wasteful efforts.

In a recent survey, 74% of city officials said they relied on the data collected by the census–that it was very important to the discharge of their duties. In a recent article, Think Progress reported

Ethnic minorities and traditionally underrepresented groups especially rely on the census for the voice it gives them in government — and are at risk if the survey goes awry or if their communities are not accurately counted. Because the Census Bureau uses this data to draw congressional maps, an undercount of diverse populations that traditionally vote Democrat could end up benefiting Republican districts.

That last sentence may hold a clue to the present straits in which the Census Bureau finds itself.

The Republican Congress has declined to fund the Bureau at the levels required–even cutting its budget despite the fact that significant population growth has expanded its workload. Worse still, the agency has been without leadership since the resignation of its previous director, and Talking Points Memo reports that Trump is proposing to appoint a pro-gerrymandering professor to the position.

The 2020 U.S. Census will determine which states gain or lose electoral power for years to come, and President Donald Trump is leaning towards appointing a pro-gerrymandering professor with no government experience to help lead the effort.

Politico reported Tuesday that Trump may soon tap Thomas Brunell, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Dallas who has no background in statistics, for a powerful deputy position that doesn’t require congressional approval.

He authored a 2008 book titled Competitive Elections are Bad for America.

This is a position that has historically been held by a career civil servant who has served many years in the Census Bureau. Brunell would come to the post from stints as a “consultant” for a number of Republican-controlled states that have been sued for racial and partisan gerrymandering, including Ohio and North Carolina.

Civil and voting rights advocates have been sounding the alarm since the beginning of this year about the fate of the 2020 Census, and the bureau currently has no director and faces a severe budget shortfall.

Now, there are fears that the appointment of an ideological conservative could lead to changes in the Census that could have repercussions for many years to come. For example, conservatives have long argued for adding a question about citizenship status to the Census, which may scare immigrants away from responding and being counted. As deputy director, Brunell would also have power over the ad budget used to encourage people to participate in the Census, and could potentially steer those resources in a way that favors conservative strongholds.

While most rational (and terrified) Americans are fixated on Trump’s more high-profile unstable and erratic behaviors, and upon Congressional Republicans’ passage of  irresponsible legislation that earlier iterations of their party would have loudly condemned, the knee-capping of the Census Bureau illustrates the real danger posed by this collection of crazies and incompetents.

This is the problem with putting people who hate government in charge of government. They will destroy its effectiveness in order to justify a return to that pre-social “state of nature” which Hobbes accurately described as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’.’

This Isn’t Who We Are–Is It?

I don’t want to sound melodramatic, but America is in the midst of an identity crisis, and the identity that emerges will shape the future our children and grandchildren inhabit.

Are we the people who inscribed “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” on the Statue of Liberty? Or are we self-absorbed climbers seeking to ingratiate ourselves with the powerful and privileged while devaluing the poor and ignoring the needs of the disadvantaged?

Are we a country committed to working with other nations to solve problems and resolve disputes, or are we belligerent saber-rattlers throwing our weight around?

Do we respect scientific expertise and intellectual excellence, recognize the social value of the arts and humanities, or do we sneer at the life of the mind and swagger with the hubris and arrogance of people who don’t know what they don’t know?

These are the questions posed by the “budget” the Trump Administration has presented to the U.S. Congress.

Trump’s budget cuts programs like Meals on Wheels that feed housebound seniors. It drastically curtails housing assistance to  poor people.  It takes the axe to  job training and education. It  eliminates the Senior Community Service Employment Program, which helps low-income job seekers age 55 and older find work by pairing them with nonprofit organizations and public agencies. It dramatically reduces funds for scientific and medical research.

The budget ends support for both NPR and PBS–sources of unbiased information for millions of Americans. It eliminates the endowments for the arts and the humanities.It destroys the EPA’s ability to enforce the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. It guts the State Department and “soft power” in favor of more and more powerful weapons–despite the fact that the Department of Defense has previously insisted that such expanded military capacity is unnecessary and even counter-productive.

As Daily Kos posted, 

Trump’s budget does have its increases. There’s much more money for defense, so Trump can add ships the Navy didn’t ask for, build more planes that the Air Force doesn’t need, and in general make defense contractors moan in ecstasy. There’s also a lot more money for DHS — because deportation forces and walls don’t run cheap.

CNN Money described what America would look like if the budget were to be passed as introduced:

More agents along the border, but a hobbled PBS. A bigger military, but less chance of getting a decent lawyer if you’re poor.

The budget unveiled by the Trump administration on Thursday would remake the United States — vastly expanding national defense but cutting or gutting dozens of programs that touch the lives of Americans every day.

 Charter schools would get more money. But federal money would be eliminated for an agency that improves water and sewer systems in impoverished corners of Appalachia.

The takeoff and landing of your plane would be guided by an air traffic controller working for a nonprofit, not the government. If you live in a small city served by subsidized commercial airline service, you might have to drive farther to get to an airport.

And if you use Amtrak trains to travel across the country, that would become harder, if not impossible. The budget would end support for the company’s long-distance train services.

It isn’t just that the proposed budget is inhumane– a “reverse Robin Hood” exercise that privileges the already privileged. It is also fiscally insane.

People who understand policy–who can connect the dots–know that most of the proposed “cost saving” cuts will end up being much more expensive than the amounts being saved; Meals on Wheels, for example, keeps seniors in their homes longer, and helps them avoid time–overwhelmingly paid for by Medicaid– in hugely more expensive nursing homes. Job training programs reduce welfare rolls. Clean air and water reduce medical outlays. Research breakthroughs save money while improving lives and health.

The budget that encapsulates Donald Trump’s “vision” for America is a prescription for a third-world country, where art, music, science and scholarship are considered effete affectations, where compassion for the less fortunate is a weakness and poverty is seen as evidence of a lack of merit (and certainly not a problem with which the privileged need concern themselves.)

Donald Trump’s “vision” for America is a nightmare.

Lady Liberty weeps.

Magic Astericks

Paul Krugman shines a light on the antics of the not-ready-for-prime-time party:

By now it’s a Republican Party tradition: Every year the party produces a budget that allegedly slashes deficits, but which turns out to contain a trillion-dollar “magic asterisk” — a line that promises huge spending cuts and/or revenue increases, but without explaining where the money is supposed to come from.

But the just-released budgets from the House and Senate majorities break new ground. Each contains not one but two trillion-dollar magic asterisks: one on spending, one on revenue. And that’s actually an understatement. If either budget were to become law, it would leave the federal government several trillion dollars deeper in debt than claimed, and that’s just in the first decade.

Krugman details the spending cuts that are specified–“savage” cuts in food stamps, Medicare and other programs upon which millions of Americans have come to rely. And of course, repeal of the hated “Obamacare.” Read through his column, and you have a picture of the priorities of people who have lost touch not just with reality, but with decency.

And that brings Krugman to his most important point, and one we should all ponder–especially those of us who called the GOP home before the party became a collection of radicalized, resentful inhabitants of an alternate reality.

It’s very important to realize that this isn’t normal political behavior. The George W. Bush administration was no slouch when it came to deceptive presentation of tax plans, but it was never this blatant. And the Obama administration has been remarkably scrupulous in its fiscal pronouncements.

O.K., I can already hear the snickering, but it’s the simple truth. Remember all the ridicule heaped on the spending projections in the Affordable Care Act? Actual spending is coming in well below expectations, and the Congressional Budget Office has marked its forecast for the next decade down by 20 percent. Remember the jeering when President Obama declared that he would cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term? Well, a sluggish economy delayed things, but only by a year. The deficit in calendar 2013 was less than half its 2009 level, and it has continued to fall.

Krugman can be fact-checked; his numbers are accurate. But as a scroll through Facebook or the comments section of your favorite news source will confirm, facts don’t matter. Evidence doesn’t matter.

Crazy rules. And it’s terrifying, because you can’t talk to crazy.

 

 

 

While We Are Wringing Our Hands….

While we wait for the impact of sequestration to hit, we might ponder this: In an interview with Spiegel Online, a Harvard economist insisted that we could save an amount equal to the sequestration cuts every year  just by ending the War on Drugs.

“The prohibition of drugs is the worst solution for preventing abuse,” said Professor Jeffrey Miron. “Firstly, it brings about a black market that is corrupt and costs human lives. Secondly, it constrains people who wouldn’t abuse drugs. Thirdly, prohibiting drugs is expensive.”

I have made this point before.

The direct costs of our counterproductive drug war have been estimated at more than 60 billion dollars a year. And yet, in all the years we have pursued this war, we have not reduced the percentage of Americans using hard drugs. Instead, that sixty billion dollars a year has destroyed lives, incentivized criminal activity, increased police corruption, laid waste to several South American countries, and decimated inner city neighborhoods.

If our elected officials are really so intent upon reducing the national debt, wouldn’t it make more sense to stop spending enormous sums for a failed policy, and use at least some of the savings for treatment? Better still, we could legalize marijuana–which medical experts tell us is less dangerous than booze–and tax it.

I don’t know whether we’d save more than the sequester, but abandoning a failed, horrifically expensive program would be a far more rational approach than taking an indiscriminate, meat ax approach to the budget.

The Politics of Pay

Whatever the merits of Mayor Ballard’s decision to give his staff huge pay raises, the “optics,” as they say, are terrible. The upcoming city budget will be more than painful, thanks largely to the ill-conceived “tax caps,” and the cuts to services will be draconian in some places. Giving your buddies in the Mayor’s office 20% raises at a time like this is simply tone-deaf. (Someone reminded me yesterday that former Mayor Peterson actually cut pay for his office staff at a time of tight budget constraints.)

For all I know, the raises were an effort to keep people from fleeing the administration; Michael Huber–far and away the most effective member of the Mayor’s staff–has already announced his departure, and this is the time in most second terms when people who can leave–who are actually employable elsewhere–begin their job hunting.

Whatever the calculus, this was a bone-headed move that will make it much harder for the Mayor to get the sort of political concessions he will need during the give-and-take of budget negotiations. It is one more bit of evidence–as if we needed any–that the “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” American delusion is just that. Delusional.

Ballard may be a nice enough fellow, but he ran for office proudly proclaiming his “outsider” status. He asked people to vote for him because he wasn’t a “politician”–in other words, because he wasn’t someone who understood how the system worked. Voters bought it; they elected him over two opponents who actually did understand urban issues and politics. The results have been mixed, to put it mildly, and Ballard has relied heavily on outside “advisers” who have had their own interests to advance.

Cities can function with inept leadership when times are reasonably good–when we can afford the learning curve. But when the fiscal belt tightens, we need leadership that understands how cities work, what the priorities must be and how to achieve important goals.

It’s no time for the tone-deaf.