Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

“Trumped Up” Social Welfare Crises

There are two utterly incompatible approaches to the maintenance of social safety nets–and beliefs about the obligation of a society to its most vulnerable members.

On one side are those who recognize the obligation, who see the payment of taxes to support social programs and government services as the “dues” we owe to the “club” we call America. On the other side are those who reject that obligation, who insist that individual citizens (including, presumably, children, the elderly and the disabled) must be personally responsible for their own needs, and to the extent they are unable to do so, that private charity should fill the gap (despite copious evidence that charity is grossly insufficient to the task).

Those in the first category have legitimate differences about how we discharge our obligations to each other, about the efficiency of programs put in place, about the evidence we can reasonably require in order to separate out the truly needy from the merely greedy. But they understand that no society that ignores its neediest citizens can be “great” or even good–let alone stable.

Those in the second category tend to be financially comfortable (or better). Their incentive to ignore reality and the plight of others is rooted in their desire to keep more of what they have and their insistence that they have “earned” their good fortune and other folks could too if they really wanted to.

They are the ones who have controlled Congress. And as Robert Reich has written,

Republicans would love to get rid of Social Security and Medicare. But they can’t, because Social Security and Medicare are among the most popular of all federal programs. Besides, most Americans have been paying into them their whole working lives, and depend on them.

Since any overt attack on these programs would be politically suicidal, the Republicans have decided to do nothing–aggressively– to refrain from the “fixes” and accommodations to economic changes that all such programs require from time to time.

The trustees for Medicare and Social Security – of which I used to be one – say Medicare will run out of money by 2026, three years sooner than last projected, and Social Security will run out in 2034.

But this doesn’t have to be the case.

Here are three easy fixes to Social Security and Medicare that Republicans don’t want you to know about.

First: Raise the cap on income subject to Social Security payroll taxes.

This year, that cap is $128,400, meaning that every dollar earned above $128,400 isn’t subject to Social Security taxes.

As Reich points out,  the CEO of a big company making $15 million dollars a year pays Social Security taxes on just $128,400 of that, while the nurse practitioner taking home  $100,000 pays Social Security taxes on every dollar of his or her income.

Reich’s second “fix” addresses a situation that most of us find outrageous:

To help rein in Medicare costs, allow the government to use its huge bargaining power to negotiate lower drug prices.

Every other country negotiates these prices; that we do not is an unconscionable gift to big Pharma, which already benefits from the immense amounts through which taxpayers subsidize research. (Pharma already spends more on advertising, marketing, and lobbying than it does on research, so protests that lower profit margins would curtail research are disingenuous at best.)

Reich’s third “fix” is the least intuitive–and the most intriguing.

Third: To deal with a basic reason why Social Security and Medicare are running out of money, allow more young immigrants into the U.S.

The basic reason why Social Security and Medicare are running out of money is the American population continues to age and live longer – leaving a relatively smaller working population to pay into Social Security and Medicare.

What to do? Allow in more young immigrants. Immigrants and their children are the fastest growing segment of the working population, already contributing billions in payroll taxes every year. Instead of shutting immigrants out, allowing more immigrants into the country will help secure the future of Social Security and Medicare.

I have previously reported on the multiple benefits conferred by immigration; this is another.

If you belonged to a club in which some members refused to pay the dues that maintained the facility and its amenities, you’d terminate their membership. We can’t terminate the citizenship of people who are unwilling to pay their fair share, but we can save Social Security and Medicare. As Reich says,

Raise the cap, negotiate drug prices, and allow in more immigrants. Do these three things and you won’t have to worry about Social Security and Medicare not being there when you need it.

 

 

 

Putting Profits Before People

It is really, really difficult to mount effective opposition to even the stupidest, craziest policies of the Trump Administration, because there are so many of them. From the environment to the social safety net to the rule of law, the attacks just keep coming.

So if you haven’t heard about the variety of ways in which Betsy DeVos is protecting her for-profit pals while screwing over taxpayers, students and public schools, that’s unfortunate but entirely understandable.

Lest Betsy get buried in this administration’s growing mountain of excrement, let me share one  decision that highlights her priorities–priorities that perfectly align with those of her fellow Trumpian plutocrats.

Courtesy of the Brookings Institution, we learn

On a Friday in mid-August, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos quietly announced that she would abolish the Obama administration’s gainful employment (GE) regulation–a safeguard that protected students from for-profit career programs that left graduates with poor job prospects and unmanageable student debt.

Her decision means that hundreds of thousands of our nation’s students–chiefly minority students, single moms, veterans, dislocated workers, and working adults–will now be trapped in low-performing for-profit programs and burdened with unaffordable and often life-limiting debts. Her regulatory rollback marks a betrayal not only of our nation’s most vulnerable students, but an abandonment of traditional conservative principles about institutional accountability for taxpayer dollars.

You have to read this jaw-dropping description of how the Department of Education “oversees” for-profit institutions to see just how far this purportedly “conservative” administration has strayed from what used to be bedrock conservative dogma.

To see just how extreme Secretary DeVos’s departure is from conservative principles, we ask this litmus test question: What would it take for a career education program to lose its eligibility for federal student aid under Secretary DeVos’s plan? The answer: A for-profit institution cannot lose its financial lifeline, no matter how poorly it performs its statutory mission to train students for gainful employment in a recognized occupation. One hundred percent of students can drop out of their career program, or not a single graduate could land a job in their field of training, and still the federal government would be willing to keep the taxpayer money pipeline of federal student loans and Pell Grants flowing unabated to the school. It’s a federal free-money plan—“accountability” stripped of consequences.

When I characterize DeVos’ approach as a departure–a U turn!– from what used to be GOP orthodoxy, I’m not exaggerating. In my wildest imagination, I never thought I would point to Bill Bennett–a blowhard I detested–as an example of “doing it right.” (But then, I wouldn’t have believed that I would look back at George W. Bush with something close to fondness, either…)

Bennett, as most of you probably remember, headed up DOE under Saint Ronald Reagan.

When he realized that numerous for-profit colleges were performing abysmally, he proposed new regulations that forced more than 2,000 postsecondary institutions to immediately face a hearing to determine whether their default rate on federal student loans was over 20%. If it was, their participation in federal student aid programs was limited, suspended, or terminated. Bennett especially blasted shoddy trade school programs, calling their “pattern of abuses” “an outrage.”

Then there was Lamar Alexander, also a Republican. He spearheaded the 1992 amendments to the Higher Education Act (HEA), under which postsecondary institutions lost their eligibility for federal student aid if their student default rates exceeded 25 percent for three consecutive years. By 2000, more than a thousand postsecondary schools lost their eligibility–and more than 80% of them were for-profit.

When a political party reverses its longstanding position on an issue, the obvious question is why.

The first and most important cause of the Republican retreat from accountability is the growing power of the for-profit college lobby. By 2005, the eight largest for-profit college chains had a combined market value of $26 billion. For-profit colleges, which always had aggressive lobbying operations, started donating much more money to congressional representatives and switched more of their giving from Democrats to Republican lawmakers. When the Obama administration released its final GE rule, the for-profit lobby donated twice as much to Republican lawmakers ($1.17 million) as to Democratic lawmakers ($583,000).

You really need to read the entire report. And weep.

When You Hire A Goof-Off

There are lots of metrics for determining whether a worker is performing adequately. HR experts all over the country can share them. If you have ever been responsible for managing personnel (I have–it was the very least favorite part of my job), you know how frustrating it can be when an employee is goofing off, failing to meet timelines or generally just not doing the job.

Voters “hired” Donald Trump to fill the position of Chief Executive. Forget the corruption, the ignorance and the evident mental illness–what would a basic job evaluation by a dispassionate, politically-neutral observer look like? A few “data points” are instructive.

CNBC looked at a very basic element of the job: assembling a team of middle-and-upper managers.

On his 500th day in office, President Donald Trump tweeted a list of accomplishments that he said “many believe” is longer than any other president.

One list that remains longer than most of his recent predecessors is the number of White House positions that remain unfilled.

After more than 16 months in office, the Trump administration has yet to fill hundreds of key jobs that require Senate confirmation. The delays are longer than for any of the last six administrations.

The most worrisome of those empty positions are at the United States State Department. More than 40 top jobs remain vacant, and dozens of ambassadors who’d been appointed by Obama and fired by Trump on Inauguration Day have yet to be replaced. Given the precipitous drop in the regard in which other countries hold the United States, and the international issues we face, it would be helpful to have people working on such matters.

Meanwhile, the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Energy and Interior,  the Social Security Administration, the U.S. Postal Service and the CIA still have no Inspectors General. Given the almost-daily revelations of  corruption in the Trump Administration, I tend to think this lack of oversight is intentional.

Then there’s this recent report from Raw Story:

An investigation by Politico has found that President Donald Trump’s “executive time” — which is used by the White House as a euphemism for the time he spends watching cable news — absolutely dwarfs the time allotted to doing official work.

Specifically, Politico reports that last Tuesday, “the president was slated for more than nine hours of ‘Executive Time,’ a euphemism for the unstructured time Trump spends tweeting, phoning friends and watching television.” The publication then notes that “official meetings, policy briefings and public appearances — traditionally the daily work of being president — consumed just over three hours of his day.”

Now, this bit of information should probably be considered good news rather than dereliction of duty; God knows how much more harm he’d do if he actually worked at it. That said, it’s one more indication–as if we needed further evidence–that Trump has no  interest in actually governing.

It’s hard to disagree with Michael Cohen, who produces a newsletter called Born in the USA, when he sums up what Trump’s real interests are.

“The thing that Trump seems to enjoy most about being president is going to campaign rallies and looking out into a sea of adoring white faces, who applaud him, laugh at his jokes, and feed his limitless need for validation and approval. So making these people happy is really about making Trump happy.”

Making Trump happy is the last thing I want to do.

 

 

We’re Number One!

As Americans head for the polls to decide whether rampant Trumpism will at least be somewhat contained, we should probably acknowledge the real significance of the votes Americans will cast tomorrow.

We love to proclaim that America “is number one!” We love to believe that we have a democratic system–that whether you label it a republic or a democracy, it is an exercise in self-government. If we are honest, however, and at all informed, we have to admit that such an assertion has become dangerously close to a lie.

A recent article from Salon began with a survey of our social ills.

The United States, by many measures, appears to be a sick society. It has one of the highest rates of wealth and income inequality in the world. Despite being one of the richest countries on the planet it has some of the highest rates of infant mortality. Poverty among the elderly is also increasing. As a whole, the country’s health care system is inadequate; life expectancy is declining. The United States has the highest rate of mass murder by gun in the world and the highest rate of incarceration.

American infrastructure is failing. There is a deep crisis of faith in the country’s political and social institutions. The environment is being despoiled by large corporations who increasingly act with impunity. Loneliness and suicide are at epidemic levels. Consumerism has supplanted democracy and meaningful engaged citizenship. White hate groups and other right-wing domestic terrorist organizations have killed and injured hundreds of people during the last few decades. America’s elites are wholly out of touch with the people and largely indifferent to their demands.

It is impossible for any intellectually honest person to deny the accuracy of that analysis. Let’s also concede that Donald Trump is the beneficiary–not the cause–of democratic dysfunction.

That said, if the America we thought we lived in is to be saved, it is absolutely critical that we contain–and ultimately defeat–Trump and the authoritarian bigots to whom he appeals.

In a column for the New York Times, a psychiatrist recently explained how the President’s rhetoric triggers and facilitates violence and hatred. I encourage you to click through and read the column in its entirety, but here are some of his important insights:

You don’t need to be a psychiatrist to understand that the kind of hate and fear-mongering that is the stock-in-trade of Mr. Trump and his enablers can goad deranged people to action. But psychology and neuroscience can give us some important insights into the power of powerful people’s words.

We know that repeated exposure to hate speech can increase prejudice, as a series of Polish studies confirmed last year. It can also desensitize individuals to verbal aggression, in part because it normalizes what is usually socially condemned behavior….politicians like Mr. Trump who stoke anger and fear in their supporters provoke a surge of stress hormones, like cortisol and norepinephrine, and engage the amygdala, the brain center for threat. One study, for example, that focused on “the processing of danger” showed that threatening language can directly activate the amygdala. This makes it hard for people to dial down their emotions and think before they act….

Susan Fiske, a psychologist at Princeton, and colleagues have shown that distrust of a out-group is linked to anger and impulses toward violence. This is particularly true when a society faces economic hardship and people are led to see outsiders as competitors for their jobs….

There is something else that Mr. Trump does to facilitate violence against those he dislikes: He dehumanizes them. “These aren’t people,” he once said about undocumented immigrants suspected of gang ties. “These are animals.”

Research by Dr. Cikara and others shows that when one group feels threatened, it makes it much easier to think about people in another group as less than human and to have little empathy for them — two psychological conditions that are conducive to violence….

Using brain M.R.I., researchers showed that images of members of dehumanized groups failed to activate brain regions implicated in normal social cognition and instead activated the subjects’ insula, a region implicated in feelings of disgust.

As Dr. Fiske has written, “Both science and history suggest that people will nurture and act on their prejudices in the worst ways when these people are put under stress, pressured by peers, or receive approval from authority figures to do so.” (my emphasis.)

 

A Capacious Bigotry

Warning: this is a continuation of yesterday’s rant.

Pipe bombs were sent to those Trump has labeled his “enemies” and “enemies of the people.” Jews were slaughtered while at prayer. Brown Immigrants and Muslims have constantly been demonized. LGBTQ citizens have been unremittingly targeted. Women are routinely diminished. And racism is constantly, consistently endorsed and promoted.

Welcome to Trumpworld.

Yes, I know it isn’t only here. White Nationalism threatens to consume the globe. But this is my country– the first nation not to condition citizenship on the “right” identity, the first not to limit it to members of the “right” tribes. Mine is the country with civic equality as a mantra and an ideal–even as we often fall very short of that ideal.

Dana Milbank reminded us of George Washington’s famous quote:

George Washington, in his 1790 letter to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., told Jews they would be safe in the new nation.

“The government of the United States . . . gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” he wrote. “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Milbank followed up with a list of Trump’s anti-semitic remarks, from the “very fine people” among the Nazis marching in Charlottesville, to his retweets of rightwing Jew haters, to his refusal to condemn supporters who threatened anti-Semitic violence against a Jewish journalist (and Melania Trump saying the writer “provoked” the threats), and numerous others.

The ADL reports a 57 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in 2017. That isn’t a coincidence.

If lists are your thing, Buzzfeed has a list of the Trump Administration’s numerous homophobic actions: rolling back policies that protected transgender folks from discrimination in the workplace,  arguing that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 doesn’t protect gay workers from discrimination, filing a brief with the Supreme Court on the side of merchants who don’t want to serve gay customers, trying to kick transgender soldiers out of the military–among many other examples.

An effort to list Trump’s assaults on immigrants or Muslims or African Americans or women would be too long to include in a blog post.

Ironically, there is a germ of truth in his attacks on the media: Fox News, Infowars, Sinclair and other various purveyors of rightwing propaganda all have blood on their metaphorical hands. For years, they have fed the festering hate of “the Other” and the narrative of white Christian victimization that Trump has encouraged and normalized.

Amanda Marcotte addressed that tribal resentment and fear in an article for Salon:

Last year, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) put out a new report on religion in America that measured a truly remarkable shift: For the first time, almost certainly in the country’s history, people who identify as white Christians are a minority of Americans. Four out of every five Americans were self-described white Christians in 1976, but now that group only constitutes 43 percent of the U.S. population.

Much of what we are seeing is the reaction to that reality by the fundamentalist Evangelicals who are supporting Trump.

The white evangelical support for Trump, coupled with the continued denunciation of LGBT people, makes it clear this is not and never was about morality, sexual or otherwise. Instead, “morality” is a fig leaf for the true agenda of the Christian right, which is asserting a strict social hierarchy based on gender.

The same-sex marriage question is a stand-in issue, Jones argued, for “a whole worldview” that is “a kind of patriarchal view of the family, with the father head of the household and the mother staying home.”

Trump may be an unrepentant sinner, but he is a supporter of this patriarchal worldview, where straight men are in charge, women are quiet and submissive and people who fall outside these old-school heterosexual norms are marginalized. Voting for him was an obvious attempt by white evangelicals to impose this worldview on others, including (and perhaps especially) their own children, who are starting to ask hard questions about a moral order based on hierarchy and rigid gender roles instead of one built on empathy and kindness.

Marcotte and Jones are focused on that patriarchal worldview, but social scientists have documented a number of other reactions to the threatened loss of white Christian male hegemony: intense resentment of the Others who have had the nerve to contend in the public and political arenas. The election of Barack Obama–a black man–was experienced by many of these “good Christians” as an existential assault. Jews have long been a target–The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was one of the first “viral” conspiracy theories.

Muslims, immigrants–anyone who isn’t a member of their shrinking tribe–is a threat to their dominance and their worldview. They have a capacious capacity for resentment–and a capacious tolerance for bigotry.

Tuesday, they’ll vote. The question is: will the rest of us?