Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

Republicans Ask: Should The Majority Rule?

Last month, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s refusal to protect its previously articulated principle of “one person, one vote” by limiting the degree to which Congressional districts can be dishonestly drawn, Talking Points Memo published an essay about the GOP’s embrace of an explicitly anti-democratic philosophy.

Josh Marshall identified the issue, and emphasized that it is separate from the Founders’ well-documented concern about the “passions of the majority.”

Much of American constitutionalism is bound up with protecting the rights of minorities against untrammeled majorities. Here though, I’m focused on something distinct and separate: the creation of anti-majoritarian ideologies, fully articulated arguments for why democratic majorities should not in fact, as a matter of principle, hold political power.

Marshall quotes Scott Walker, the former (sleazy) governor of Wisconsin, who now heads up a GOP committee defending gerrymandering (because of course he does); Walker claims that what Democrats call “fair” maps aren’t really fair because they advantage urban areas where more voters live. He argues that counting each vote equally gives urban areas “too large an influence.”

This is a bracingly candid statement of the position: We need to reevaluate how we define “fair”. Because if “fair” means whoever gets the most votes (i.e., proportional representation) then Republicans are at an inherent disadvantage “because of their national popular vote edge.” I don’t think my explication really goes beyond Walker’s statement really at all: what Democrats call “fair” is the candidate with the most votes winning.

As Marshall says,

Beyond the opportunism and the fact that city vs non-city has a deeply racial dimension, at a basic level Walker wants to see city and non-city as two contending entities which deserve to contend on equal terms. But of course these concepts, city and non-city or city and rural areas have no existence in American law. Nor does the idea even have a factual grounding. There are plenty of Republicans in cities and Democrats outside the cities. It is simply a broad brush way of capturing a political division in American society which Walker – and a growing number of Republicans – has formalized to explain why laws and districts should be changed to ensure that his preferred candidates win even when they get fewer votes.

Given the fact that twice in the last 16 years, the candidate who lost the popular vote–in the case of Trump, massively–became President, Americans have increasingly focused on the anti-democratic elements of our Constitutional system.

Thanks to the Electoral College, and population shifts over time, it currently takes four urban votes to equal three rural votes.

The composition of the Senate is equally undemocratic: every state has two Senators, irrespective of the state’s population. Today, a majority of Americans live in nine states that collectively have 18 votes in the Senate. The rest of the country–with a minority of the population– has 82.

These anti-democratic elements have been around a long time. What’s new, as Marshall points out, is that “the big state/small state divide has seldom lined up so clearly with the broader partisan division in the country.

All of this is part of the central dynamic of our time: Republicans increasingly turning against majority rule and a widely shared franchise because majorities, when not sliced up into gerrymandered districts or state borders, increasingly favor Democrats. That’s why we have voter ID laws. It’s why we have resistance to early voting, felon voting and basically everything else that doesn’t keep the voting electorate as small as old and as white as possible. Most of these strategies have focused on things like election security, or cost or convenience or whipped up fears about voter fraud. But that’s starting to change. The explicit embrace of special advantages for Republicans outside major urban concentrations, the explicit embrace of majority rule not being the essence of electoral fairness, is coming to the fore.

Defenders of anti-majoritarianism protest that we are not and never have been a democracy; we are a representative republic. That’s accurate as far as it goes. Certainly, as Marshall notes, the Founders had a well-grounded concern that minority rights would suffer if popular majorities were left unrestrained. Even if we must close our eyes to some of the less laudable concerns that prompted creation of the Electoral College and the composition of the Senate, the protection of minority opinion justifies a degree of anti-majoritarianism.

The question is: how much?

The tension between individual rights and majority passions–the need to find the proper balance between the two– has been a constant theme throughout American history.

Too much majoritarianism threatens individual rights. Too little–as when a minority is empowered to elect candidates rejected by the majority– threatens government legitimacy.

Persistent rule by the minority is an invitation to revolution.

 

 

 

Ethics–Dan Coats’ Fatal Flaw

According to Axios, Trump is planning to dump Dan Coats as Director of National Intelligence.

President Trump has told confidants he’s eager to remove Dan Coats as director of national intelligence, according to five sources who have discussed the matter directly with the president.

The state of play: Trump hasn’t told our sources when he plans to make a move, but they say his discussions on the topic have been occurring for months — often unprompted — and the president has mentioned potential replacements since at least February. A source who spoke to Trump about Coats a week ago said the president gave them the impression that the move would happen “sooner rather than later.”

Despite finding him personally pleasant, I have never been a fan of Dan Coats, for reasons  not relevant to his performance in his current position. I always saw him as a nice enough man with whom I had substantial policy disagreements. A co-worker of mine said it best, many years ago, when Coats was first running for Senate: “I’d vote for him for neighbor, but not Senator.”

In the Age of Trump, however, Coats has been a star of sorts– an ethical standout among the swamp creatures that populate this appalling administration. Unlike Bob Barr, he hasn’t twisted facts to fit a political agenda. Unlike those on Trump’s Cabinet, he isn’t trying to destroy the agency he leads. Unlike the feckless Senate Republicans, he hasn’t remained silent when the President’s lies have misrepresented reality.

According to Axios

The big picture: Coats has rankled Trump more than once with his public comments, according to sources with direct knowledge.

He angered Trump when he appeared to criticize the president’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin during an on-stage interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell at last year’s Aspen Security Forum.

He drew Trump’s ire again in January when he told a Senate panel that North Korea was unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons, contradicting the president’s cheerier assessments.

There have been unsubstantiated reports that Coats previously had to be talked out of resigning; whatever the accuracy of those rumors, he has responded to what appears to be an intentional leak aimed at undercutting his effectiveness:

In a statement provided by the ODNI, Coats said, “I am focused on doing my job, and it is frustrating to repeatedly be asked to respond to anonymous sources and unsubstantiated, often false rumors that undercut the critical work of the Intelligence Community and its relationship with the President. I am proud to lead an IC singularly focused on the vital mission of providing timely and unbiased intelligence to President Trump, Vice President Pence and the national security team in support of our nation’s security.”

Trump has made it quite clear that he has no interest in the receipt of “timely and unbiased intelligence,” and that he sees no value in the ODNI itself.

As usual, Juanita Jean’s blog had the best snark:

Trump is now saying that he’s eager to fire Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, then eliminate the position altogether.  That fits, right?  Because if there is one word that doesn’t describe Trump, it’s intelligence.

So true.

 

 

A Doctor’s Prescription

As the primary battles heat up, “Medicare for All” (or in Mayor Pete’s more “do-able” formulation “Medicare for All Who Want It”) has become perhaps the hot-button issue.

The Trump Administration continues to wage war on the Affordable Care Act, a/k/a Obamacare–part of Trump’s determination to erase anything and everything Obama accomplished– and thanks to Mitch McConnell’s success in placing partisans on the federal bench, that attack may succeed.

Anyone who follows the news, or has a Facebook feed, knows what we “consumers” think, and polling confirms that large majorities of Americans would welcome some form of national, universal healthcare. But what about doctors? What do medical professionals who have to work within today’s uneven patchwork of a system have to say?

I asked my cousin, the cardiologist whose insights I periodically share.

I encourage you to click through and read his post in its entirety, but I want to share several observations that I found particularly telling. The first is his reminder that we don’t go “shopping” for healthcare the same way we shop for a new pair of shoes.

Although comparison shopping makes sense when we buy a product like an automobile, such market forces do not apply to health care. Negotiation of prices of various treatments is seldom available, especially not for the complex needs of the desperately ill who consume a large share of resources. Multiple private insurance plans obscure this issue even further.

He then cites a recent study that found a significant part of the variation in medical spending–and more than half of all Medicare spending– to be determined by capacity rather than by medical need.

And speaking of cost…

In contrast to the ACA’s requiring private insurers to spend at least 80-85 percent of their revenue on delivery of health care, more than 98 percent of Medicare’s expenditures are so devoted. Estimates vary, but one-quarter to one-third of our current costs are driven by insurance company overhead, profits, and the administrative costs. Roughly half of these costs would be recovered under single-payer and could instead be devoted to the delivery of meaningful health care.

And then there are drug prices.

Drug prices must be controlled:  Acceptable drug lists vary widely among health plans. Negotiated prices depend strongly upon the buyers’ purchasing volume. Only a single-payer system enables the kind of unified bulk purchasing of drugs and medical devices that would give the buyer adequate power. A model for this structure exists today here in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Due to governmental authority to negotiate drug prices for the VA, it pays roughly half the retail price of drugs.

I italicized that last sentence, because it astonished me. No wonder other countries allow government to negotiate drug prices–and we can all guess why Congress expressly forbids our government to do the same.

But what about doctors’ pay? Shouldn’t doctors’ incomes compensate them for those years of medical training and residencies? Wouldn’t we lose medical personnel under a national system?

A recent analysis found that a single-payer model does not lead to a loss in physician income, allowing for care-givers to receive adequate reimbursement of expenses plus fair profits, while ensuring value for taxpayers. Streamlined billing under single payer would also save physicians vast overhead costs, enhanced by reducing the need for the many employees to fulfill the varied requirements and forms of the private insurance companies. Moreover, physicians might best be compensated with regular salary-type payments rather than the current “fee for service” model, which encourages excess medical tests and procedures that drive up costs without providing better outcomes.

And finally, what about private insurance? Opponents of a single-payer system warn that people who love their current coverage (these are people I’ve yet to encounter, but I’ll assume for the sake of argument that someone, somewhere, actually likes Anthem, et al) would lose it. My cousin seems to be recommending Mayor Pete’s “Medicare for All Who Want It” approach. He also makes a point that Kamala Harris made in a recent interview:

The population of the U.S. would likely require additional tiers of care provided by private insurers, which might add extra services to basic care such as private room selections, lower waiting periods for non-urgent problems, elimination of co-pays, long-term care, dental care, etc.

The bottom line: the doctor has diagnosed America’s current approach to healthcare as deathly ill and probably terminal. You can read his prescription in its entirety at the link.

Follow The Money

Want to know what America’s real priorities are? Easy; just follow the money.

Some of what we find when we examine federal spending isn’t a surprise. We’ve all watched as the Trump Administration has eviscerated the EPA, for example, so cuts and rollbacks there may infuriate but not surprise us. After all, Trump has dismissed climate change as a “Chinese hoax,” eliminated subsidies for clean energy, and slapped tariffs on solar panels.

Given this administration’s well-known bias against science, evidence and clean energy–not to mention Trump’s fondness for the dying coal industry–I shouldn’t have been surprised by the general thrust of a recent study of America’s federal subsidies for fossil fuels  by the International Monetary Fund.

But I was.

Because the amount of the subsidy was staggering.

The United States has spent more subsidizing fossil fuelsin recent years than it has on defense spending, according to a new report from the International Monetary Fund.

The IMF found that direct and indirect subsidies for coal, oil and gas in the U.S. reached $649 billion in 2015. Pentagon spending that same year was $599 billion.

The study defines “subsidy” very broadly, as many economists do. It accounts for the “differences between actual consumer fuel prices and how much consumers would pay if prices fully reflected supply costs plus the taxes needed to reflect environmental costs” and other damage, including premature deaths from air pollution.

Since most observers consider the U.S. defense budget to be hopelessly bloated, the fact that fossil fuel subsidies exceed that budget is absolutely mind-blowing.

The study concluded that if fossil fuels had been fairly priced in 2015–i.e., priced without those direct and indirect subsidies by the federal government– global carbon emissions would have been reduced by 28 percent, and deaths from fossil fuel-linked air pollution would have been cut in half.

People (like me) concerned about the environment may not have recognized the enormity of the fossil fuel subsidies, but most of us were pretty sure that a lot more federal dollars go to support fossil fuels than are directed to programs incentivizing the development of clean, alternative energy. The IMF study confirmed that suspicion.

And then there’s the extent to which our financial support of fossil fuels exceeds our investment in education. Seeing those numbers was another gut punch. After all, Americans give lots of lip service to education; we’ve had “education Presidents,” and it is the rare politician who doesn’t make education a prominent part of his or her platform.

Nevertheless, according to Forbes Magazine, that same IMF study determined that the U.S. spends ten times more money propping up the fossil fuels that drive climate change than we spend on education.

Globally, fossil fuels receive 85% of all government subsidies. What if we diverted just a portion of the U.S. subsidies and used that money to improve public education?

Virtually every candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination has expressed concern about climate change, and an intention to combat it. Voters can determine just how committed they are to the environment by asking whether the candidate plans to continue the obscene subsidies that waste our tax dollars, pad the bottom lines of immensely profitable oil and gas interests, and prevent us from effectively addressing an existential threat to the planet.

Just think what we could do if we redirected a substantial portion of the defense budget (as, interestingly, the Department of Defense itself has advocated) and entirely terminated the unnecessary, wasteful and arguably immoral subsidies for fossil fuels.

 

 

Adventures In Privatization

For a considerable period of time in the late 1900s, privatization of government functions was all the rage. (Not that it was true privatization; as I’ve noted before, actual privatization  requires that government completely withdraw from whatever activity was involved, leaving its provision entirely to the private sector.)

What public entities call privatization is almost always contracting-out or outsourcing–providing a service through a third-party surrogate rather than through government employees.

Enthusiasm for the practice has abated considerably, as research has steadily deflated the claims made by proponents. Contracting out doesn’t usually save money, for one thing, and the ability of government to monitor those with whom it contracts has proved to be less than ideal, to put it mildly.

Also, in far too many situations, contracting has become the new patronage.

There are certainly public functions that lend themselves to outsourcing, but thanks to the American penchant to go “all in” on the latest management fad, contracting has often proved disastrous. From poor outcomes, to cost overruns, to outright corruption, analyses have been increasingly negative.  A recent research project adds one: government outsourcing decreases employee diversity.

A new study by researchers at the University of Georgia revealed that when governments contract work out to private companies, fewer  African-American, Hispanic, and female employees are hired.

Over the past twenty years, private contracting has become a popular way to improve efficiency in the public sector.

“Increasingly, services that were once performed by public employees, are provided under contract by private firms,” explained study author J. Edward Kellough, a UGA professor of public administration and policy in the School of International and Public Affairs. “The question,” he added, “is whether this growth in contracting has been detrimental to minority and female employment.”

That’s not nearly the worst of it.

The Trump Administration has been contracting with private prison companies to house refugees at our southern border. Private prisons are arguably the most striking misuse of government outsourcing, and their operation of border facilities has raised understandable outrage.

I’ll let Paul Krugman take it from here.

Is it cruelty, or is it corruption? That’s a question that comes up whenever we learn about some new, extraordinary abuse by the Trump administration — something that seems to happen just about every week. And the answer, usually, is “both.”

What about the detention centers at the border?

And the same goes for the atrocities the U.S. is committing against migrants from Central America. Oh, and save the fake outrage. Yes, they are atrocities, and yes, the detention centers meet the historical definition of concentration camps.

One reason for these atrocities is that the Trump administration sees cruelty both as a policy tool and as a political strategy: Vicious treatment of refugees might deter future asylum-seekers, and in any case it helps rev up the racist base. But there’s also money to be made, because a majority of detained migrants are being held in camps run by corporations with close ties to the Republican Party.

Krugman then sums up the whole sorry experiment with “privatization.”

Privatization of public services — having them delivered by contractors rather than government employees — took off during the 1980s. It has often been justified using the rhetoric of free markets, the supposed superiority of private enterprise to government bureaucracy.

This was always, however, a case of bait-and-switch. Free markets, in which private businesses compete for customers, can accomplish great things, and are indeed the best way to organize most of the economy. But the case for free markets isn’t a case for private business where there is no market: There’s no reason to presume that private firms will do a better job when there isn’t any competition, because the government itself is the sole customer. In fact, studies of privatization often find that it ends up costing more than having government employees do the work.

Nor is that an accident. Between campaign contributions and the revolving door, plus more outright bribery than we’d like to think, private contractors can engineer overpayment on a scale beyond the wildest dreams of public-sector unions.

Krugman makes an even more important point about accountability.

As he says, if you outsource garbage collection, it’s pretty easy to determine whether the garbage has been collected (although I’d note it’s not so easy to tell where it’s been dumped…). But if you hire a private company to do something the public can’t see–like prisons or migrant camps– it’s easy to hide poor performance and generous overpayments to political cronies.

And running a prison, which is literally walled off from public view, is almost a perfect example of the kind of government function that should not be privatized. After all, if a private prison operator bulks up its bottom line by underpaying personnel and failing to train them adequately, if it stints on food and medical care, who in the outside world will notice?

And of course, the administration and its cronies profit from these facilities. It’s hard to disagree with Krugman’s final observation:

Every betrayal of American principles also seems, somehow, to produce financial benefits for Trump and his friends.