Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

Herd Immunity

As we get  closer to November 3d, Trump and his sycophants are becoming more agitated about polls that show His Orangeness losing.  Those negative polling results rest in significant part on the widespread ( entirely accurate) perception that Trump has failed spectacularly when it comes to protecting the public against the Coronavirus.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we are now hearing about a vaccine that might be ready on November 1st (that date is just a coincidence, of course), or that we are seeing the White House ramp up efforts  to distract from the sort of  sound, science-based advice being offered by actual experts like Dr. Fauci. One of  the more misleading  messages  emanating from the administration involves promises  about achieving “herd  immunity,” so  today I  thought I’d turn the  bulk of  the  blog over  to my cousin the cardiologist, whom I  often quote on these  matters. (You can read his blog, aimed at debunking “Snake Oil” remedies, here.)

This time, he  addresses the  question: What Is Herd Immunity?

Herd immunity occurs when a high percentage of a given population is immune to a disease, either from having recovered from an infection, or having received a prior vaccination. The end result is the prevention of subsequent outbreaks, or epidemics, of the disease within that population. The exact threshold for herd immunity depends on the specific disease, especially on how easily the disease is spread. Measles, which is highly infectious, requires over 90 percent of the population to produce herd immunity. Meanwhile, influenza can be controlled with a 60 percent level of herd immunity. COVID-19 might be somewhere in the middle: Most experts expect that coronavirus would require 70 to 80 percent protection to achieve this level of immunity.

Herd immunity is typically achieved through a vaccine, such as that for polio, a disease which, just a few decades ago brought justifiable fear to parents that their children would be paralyzed for life. And although isolated cases still occur in many places, a high enough proportion of people are immune through vaccination that epidemics no longer occur. Similar success was obtained with measles, until a misguided anti-vaccination movement has partially upended the desired herd immunity levels.

Originally the term “herd immunity” was employed by immunologists and epidemiologists to describe the percentage of the population that must acquire immunity through receipt of an effective vaccine in order to halt spread of infection. Used by Trump, however, herd immunity is interpreted as the percentage of the population that must acquire immunity by becoming infected to stop the infection from spreading further. This no vaccine approach requires a significant portion of the population to become gravely ill or die (as nearly 200,000 Americans already have) to achieve the same result.

Sadly, a New Coronavirus Adviser, Dr. Scott Atlas, misinforms both the White House and general population with deceptive ideas. Dr. Atlas (a radiologist, not versed in epidemiology or infectious diseases) questions controls like masks. He has angered top health officials by pushing various other disputed policy prescriptions. He argued not only that the science of mask wearing is uncertain, but that children cannot pass on the coronavirus and that the role of the government is not to stamp out the virus but to protect its most vulnerable citizens as Covid-19 takes its course. Ideas like these, scientifically incorrect, have propelled Atlas into President Trump’s White House, where he is pushing to reshape the administration’s response to the pandemic.

Not surprisingly, Trump has embraced Dr. Atlas’s cockamamie ideas, as has Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, even as he upsets the balance of power within the White House coronavirus task force with ideas that top government doctors and scientists like Anthony S. Fauci, Deborah L. Birx and Jerome Adams, the surgeon general, find at best misguided , and at worst, outright dangerous

“I think Trump clearly does not like the advice he was receiving from the people who are the experts — Fauci, Birx, etc. — so he has slowly shifted from their advice to somebody who tells him what he wants to hear,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease expert at Emory University, who is close to Dr. Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator.

“He (Atlas) has many great ideas,” Mr. Trump told reporters at a White House briefing last month with Dr. Atlas seated feet away. “And he thinks what we’ve done is really good, and now we’ll take it to a new level.”

Let’s all hope that we can prevent this “new level” from materializing until after November, 2020!!

Remember The Common Good?

Later this morning, I will speak–via Zoom–to the Danville Unitarians on the  subject of freedom. Here’s a  lightly edited version  of that talk–a bit long, so my apologies.

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There’s an inevitable tension between Americans’ love of freedom—understood as our freedom from government rules dictating our behaviors—and the obligation citizens have  to contribute appropriately to the common good. That tension has manifested itself most recently in a series of conflicts in which self-styled “freedom fighters” have challenged government mandates to wear masks and observe social distancing, but we have seen similar conflicts when government has required  us to wear seatbelts or to refrain from smoking in restaurants and bars.

That tension also motivates our continuing political arguments about tax rates and social welfare programs.

Where do we draw the line between our right to personal autonomy and the government-enforced duties we owe to others? What are those duties, who gets to prescribe them, and how important is our willingness to discharge them? What is our duty to contribute to what academics call social solidarity, and most of us would call a sense of community?

The most basic question of political philosophy is: what should government do? The U.S. Bill of Rights is our list of things that government should not do—censor speech, favor religion, search citizens without probable cause or infringe their liberty interests or property rights without due process, among other things—but America hasn’t revisited (or, really, visited) an equally fundamental question: what is government for? To put it another way, what elements of our social and physical infrastructure should we expect government in the 21st Century to provide—and what are our obligations in return?

We recognize physical infrastructure: roads, bridges, sidewalks, sewers, the national electrical grid. Even then, even with physical infrastructure, there is less recognition of the importance of other elements of the built environment: parks, libraries, public transportation, utilities, street lighting and other elements that collectively produce a community’s “quality of life.” What’s worse, despite almost universal agreement about the importance of physical infrastructure, America’s roads and bridges are in serious disrepair, our electrical grid is vulnerable to hacking, and sewer overflows continue to pollute rivers and streams. Aging pipes are contaminating drinking water in numerous cities and towns;  problems with lead in the water are not limited to the widely-publicized situation in Flint, Michigan.

The problems with America’s physical infrastructure are visible, widely acknowledged and await only a rebirth of political will to fix. The defects in our social infrastructure, however, are much less clear-cut, and because they are highly contested, they resist repair.

By “social infrastructure,” I mean programs that help citizens and build community, including access to economic security, health, education, and the right to equal participation in democratic decision-making, most definitely including the right to vote.

Aristotle thought that social infrastructure should facilitate human flourishing– create an environment within which each individual can live, grow and pursue his or her own particular telos, or life goals.

Americans currently face considerable challenges: a rapidly morphing information environment that facilitates spin, disinformation and outright propaganda, an increasingly overt tribalism, deepening economic inequality, widespread civic ignorance, and the accelerating corruption of America’s legal and political structures. All of these elements of contemporary reality, plus the existential threats posed by climate change and a global pandemic, challenge America’s future.

What comes next? Where does America go from here? Do we fix our problems, or relinquish our place on the world stage and terminate our historically uneven efforts to live up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights?

Clearly, we’re at a turning point. We could continue the Trumpian withdrawal from global alliances and our own historic civic aspirations. We could enter a period of extreme social unrest, with escalating protests and accelerating social factionalism, leading to a very uncertain future. Or we could revisit America’s existing social contract and evaluate the current utility of our governing assumptions—reaffirming    those that have stood the test of time, and modifying those that no longer serve us.

America has always defined freedom in  the negative–as the individual’s right to be free of government constraint unless she is harming the person or property of someone else. That view of freedom has generated significant conflict: what constitutes a harm sufficient to justify government intervention? How much deference to the rights of others is required? Which others? Is the obligation of government limited to non-interference, or do citizens have the right to demand that government pursue positive actions? If so, what are those actions?

Defining liberty has become even more complicated as America’s population and diversity have increased, as equality (another contested term) has become an equally important value, and as society has become more global and more complex. At a minimum, genuine liberty, genuine freedom, requires more than enforcing limits on the reach of government, important as those limits remain. True liberty– allowing individuals to determine and pursue their individual aspirations– requires ensuring that all citizens have both the means to exercise choice, and sufficient information to inform those choices.

Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen argues that freedom is the ability to exercise individual agency, and that personal agency is inescapably limited, inescapably constrained by available social, political and economic opportunities.  Individual agency—the ability of each person to formulate and pursue his or her life goals– is dependent upon what Sen calls “social arrangements”–what I’m call ing“social infrastructure.”

I hate to argue with my libertarian friends, but in today’s complex and inter-dependent society, government’s responsibility cannot simply be to get out of the way.

Anti-government attitudes that permeate contemporary American culture have been profoundly influenced by a Protestant Ethic that exaggerated the ability of  individuals to rise above social and structural impediments, and minimized the extent to which the social infrastructure in which we are all inevitably embedded contributes to, enables—or hinders—individual achievement.

In addition to older, traditional functions, today’s governments must provide citizens with at least a basic social safety net that supports human freedom and allows citizens to reach their potential. That safety net can be constructed in ways that unify or further divide us.

Here’s an example of what I mean: Look at the widespread, negative attitudes toward welfare programs, and then consider the massive support that exists for Social Security and Medicare. Why the difference? Social Security and Medicare are universal programs; virtually everyone contributes to them and everyone who lives long enough participates in their benefits. Just as we don’t generally hear accusations about lazy poor people who are “driving on roads paid for by my taxes,” beneficiaries of programs that include everyone (or almost everyone) are much more likely to escape stigma and much less likely to arouse resentment. In addition to the usual questions of efficacy and cost-effectiveness, policymakers in a diverse polity should evaluate proposed programs and other government actions by considering whether they are likely to unify or further divide Americans. Universal policies are far more likely to create unity, an important and often overlooked argument favoring programs like single-payer health insurance or a Universal Basic Income.

A workable social contract must respect individual rights and subgroup affiliations, but must also connect citizens to an overarching community in which they have equal membership and from which they receive equal support. The challenge is to achieve a healthy balance—to create a society that genuinely respects individual autonomy within a renewed emphasis on community and the common good, a society that both rewards individual effort and talent, and nurtures the equal expression of those talents irrespective of tribal identity.

That society would have the right to expect its members to pay their dues—taxes, of course, but also a stint of military or public service, and discharge of civic duties like voting and jury service.

How do we get there?  How do we turn our cantankerous and tribal society into a cohesive community? There’s a Native American parable that I think is instructive: One evening, an elderly Cherokee brave told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves that are inside all of us. One is evil. The other is good.” The grandson asked, “Which wolf wins?” and the grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”

America needs a social and political infrastructure that feeds—encourages, promotes and rewards—prosocial, pro-democratic, humane behaviors and norms. Assuming we emerge from the angry and difficult period we are going through—assuming that we vote decisively for democracy and decency on November 3d, it will be time to come together and figure out how government can “feed” the good wolf.

It is past time to honor America’s original motto: e pluribus unum, out of the many, one.

Watch This Experiment!

Germany has begun an intriguing experiment. For a period of three years, a  group of people will get €1,200 a month. (At today’s exchange rate, that’s $1,420.) The money is free; the only  requirement is that recipients answer researchers’ questions about what they’re doing with this unconditional income.

As German media has reported,

Officials from the Mein Grundeinkommen (My Basic Income) charity are convinced that an unconditional income for all citizens would solve many current problems. The assumption is that people get more creative and become freer and happier if they don’t constantly face the pressure to earn enough money to get by.

Whether this lives up to reality will be explored scientifically during the project. “We’ll analyze what people are doing during a period of guaranteed material security,” project chief Jürgen Schupp from the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) told DW.

Among the questions he’ll look into are: Will the test persons spend all the money or will they save a certain amount? Will they stop working altogether or work less? Also, will they donate money to others?

The experiment will give his team all the answers it needs, says Schupp. Even changes in people’s stress levels can be identified with the help of hair samples, he argues.

During the primaries, Andrew Yang brought the issue into more prominence, but the debate about UBI–an unconditional basic income– has been going on for years. The debate centers on dramatically different predictions of what people will do when they don’t have to do anything. Will receipt of a basic income make people lazy, make them less  apt to work, less productive? Or is a UBI a tool to rationalize current  social  welfare systems (and not-so-incidentally, prepare for an era when automation has eliminated millions  of jobs)?

I  have been  intrigued by  what I see as the promise of a UBI.

What if the United States embraced a new social contract, beginning with the premise that all citizens are valued members of the American polity, and that (as the advertisement says) membership has its privileges? Contracts are by definition mutual undertakings, agreements in which both sides offer consideration. In my imagined “Brave New World,” government would create an environment within which humans could flourish, an environment within which members of the polity would be guaranteed a basic livelihood, a substantive education and an equal place at the civic table. In return, members (aka citizens) would pay their “dues:” taxes, a stint of public/civic service, and the consistent discharge of civic duties like voting and jury service.

With a UBI (in contrast to welfare) there would be no phase-out, no marriage penalties, no people falsifying information, no daunting (and expensive) bureaucracy.

Support for the concept hasn’t been limited to liberals and progressives. Milton Friedman famously proposed a “negative income tax,” and F.A. Hayek, the libertarian economist, wrote “There is no reason why in a free society government should not assure to all, protection against severe deprivation in the form of an assured minimum income, or a floor below which nobody need descend.” In 2016, Samuel Hammond of the libertarian Niskanen Center, noted the “ideal” key features of a UBI: its unconditional structure avoids creating poverty traps; it sets a minimum income floor, raising worker bargaining power without wage or price controls; it decouples benefits from a particular workplace or jurisdiction; since it’s cash, it respects a diversity of needs and values; and it simplifies and streamlines a complex web of bureaucracy, eliminating rent seeking and other sources of inefficiency.

Hammond’s point about worker bargaining power is especially important. In today’s economy, characterized by dramatically-diminished unions and the growth of “gig work,”  employee bargaining power has dramatically eroded. Wages  have been effectively stagnant for years, despite significant growth in productivity. In 2018, Pew Research reported that “today’s real average wage (that is, the wage after accounting for inflation) has about the same purchasing power it did 40 years ago.

If the U.S. had a UBI and single-payer  health  insurance, workers would have the freedom to leave abusive employers, unsafe work conditions, and uncompetitive pay scales. A UBI wouldn’t level the playing field, but it would certainly reduce the tilt. It’s also worth noting that a UBI would have much the same positive effect on economic growth as a higher minimum wage. When poor people get money, they spend it, increasing demand.

Previous experiments and pilot projects have been encouraging;  receipt of a  guaranteed basic  income has not caused people  to stop working, and the money hasn’t  been used  for liquor and sin. Germany’s experiment looks to be larger than the others that have been reported, and it will be interesting to see its results.

Pandemics And Parking Meters

Back in 2011,  Indianapolis (under  then-Mayor Ballard) entered into a  fifty-year agreement with  a consortium called Park Indy  to upgrade and manage the city’s parking meters. At the time, I was  among those who argued strenuously against that agreement.

I  had  two major objections  and two never-answered questions.

The first objection was to the fifty-year length of the contract. Even if the deal had been less one-sided fiscally, decisions about where to place meters, how to price them, what lengths of time to allow and so on have an enormous impact on local businesses and residential neighborhoods. As I said at  the time, these are decisions requiring flexibility in the face of changing circumstances; they are most definitely not decisions that should be held hostage to contracting provisions aimed at protecting a vendor’s profits.

My  second objection was that, under the terms of the contract, downtown developments and civic events would become more costly. More often than not, new  construction interrupts adjacent parking. If the city is managing its own meters, it can choose to ignore that loss of parking revenue, or decide to charge the developer, based upon the City’s best interests. Street festivals and other civic celebrations also require  that meters be bagged, and usually there are good reasons not to charge the not-for-profit or civic organization running the event. The ParkIndy contract required the City to pay ACS whenever  interruptions require bagging the meters and disrupting projected revenues from those meters.

No one could have foreseen a pandemic, of course. That’s the point. When you contract away your  flexibility, your authority to make decisions that are responsive  to  unforeseen events, you end up owing a lot  of money to the private  vendor. Indianapolis closed certain streets to  traffic,  in order to allow restaurants to serve customers outdoors, a move that probably kept some of them afloat during a very difficult time. That required bagging  the meters  on those streets. WISH reports that the city  has already had to pay Park Indy 450,000 under the contract–at a time when the pandemic is wreaking  havoc with city and state finances.

File that  payment under “adding insult to injury,” since, according to periodic reports, the city has never come close to receiving the income it projected when this ill-conceived privatization agreement was negotiated. In May of 2016, the Indianapolis Star reported that the city was reaping only about a quarter of the dollars ParkIndy projected when it paid $20 million for the right to operate the meters until 2061.

Then there  are  my two questions.

As I wrote at the time, why privatize at all? Parking isn’t rocket science. There was never a satisfactory response to the obvious question “why can’t we do this ourselves, and keep all the money?” Why couldn’t Indianapolis retain control of its infrastructure, and issue revenue bonds to cover the costs of the necessary improvements? Interest rates were at a historic low at the time, making it even more advantageous to do so. If the Ballard administration was too inept to manage parking, it could have created a Municipal Parking Authority, as Councilor Jackie Nytes  suggested at the time.

What was the compelling reason to enrich private contractors and reduce (desperately needed) City revenues.

And finally,  why ACS –the company that is the primary partner of ParkIndy. There had already been extensive publicity about ACS’ performance problems in Chicago; there was also troubling information about the company’s track record in Washington, D.C., where an audit documented mismanagement, overcharging, over-counting of meters, and the issuance of bogus tickets (ACS got all the revenue for tickets). The audit  found  that Washington had lost $8,823,447 in revenue and experienced a twenty-fold increase in complaints from the public.

The  only answer I  could  come up with was that the Ballard Administration got an  up-front infusion of cash which helped it hold  the line on taxes while Ballard was  in office–and who cares about the future? 

This was actually something of a modus operandi for Ballard.  An academic paper I co-authored  with a colleague  shared the results of our investigation into the convoluted structure of  the city’s sale of its water and sewer utilities. The highly sophisticated financing scheme for the sale had the effect of shifting costs to utility rate-payers that should properly have been assumed by taxpayers.

There’s a saying among politicians: to elected officials, “long-term” means  “until the next election.” 

And I  used to think that “fiscally responsible” meant “pay as you go.” I was  so naive…

Fear Itself

Paul Krugman’s column on August 24th really, really hit the proverbial nail on the head.  It was titled “QAnon is Trump’s Last, Best Chance,” and it homed in on the nature of the snake oil that Trump and the GOP are peddling.

Last week’s Democratic National Convention was mainly about decency — about portraying Joe Biden and his party as good people who will do their best to heal a nation afflicted by a pandemic and a depression. There were plenty of dire warnings about the threat of Trumpism; there was frank acknowledgment of the toll taken by disease and unemployment; but on the whole the message was surprisingly upbeat.

This week’s Republican National Convention, by contrast, however positive its official theme, is going to be QAnon all the way.

I don’t mean that there will be featured speeches claiming that Donald Trump is protecting us from an imaginary cabal of liberal pedophiles, although anything is possible. But it’s safe to predict that the next few days will be filled with QAnon-type warnings about terrible events that aren’t actually happening and evil conspiracies that don’t actually exist.

Think about that last line: terrible events that aren’t actually happening and evil conspiracies that don’t actually exist. Inculcating fear–of Black people, Jews, immigrants, socialists–has been a Republican staple since Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” but until recently, it was only a portion of that strategy.

Now, the once-Grand-old-Party has nothing else.

As Krugman points out, the messaging employed by this administration has focused on efforts to panic Americans over nonexistent threats.

If you get your information from administration officials or Fox News, you probably believe that millions of undocumented immigrants cast fraudulent votes, even though actual voter fraud hardly ever happens; that Black Lives Matter protests, which with some exceptions have been remarkably nonviolent, have turned major cities into smoking ruins; and more.

It has been a constant barrage of Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts.”

Krugman says that much of this focus on imaginary threats is a defense mechanism from people who have no clue how to do policy, or to cope with real threats.

Covid-19, of course, has been the. all-too-visible example of that inability. In the face of massive American deaths, Trump has offered quack remedies (drink bleach!), and little else other than blaming China. and denying the severity and extent of the pandemic.

Trump, in other words, can’t devise policies that respond to the nation’s actual needs, nor is he willing to listen to those who can. He won’t even try. And at some level both he and those around him seem aware of his basic inadequacy for the job of being president.

What he and they can do, however, is conjure up imaginary threats that play into his supporters’ prejudices, coupled with conspiracy theories that resonate with their fear and envy of know-it-all “elites.” QAnon is only the most ludicrous example of this genre, all of which portrays Trump as the hero defending us from invisible evil.

If all of this sounds crazy, that’s because it is. And it’s almost certainly not a political tactic that can win over a majority of American voters.

Trump’s base is terrified. They are afraid most of all of demographic change, of losing their white, Christian, masculine privilege, but they are also deeply uncomfortable with the increasing ambiguities of modern life. They  want desperately to “return” to a world that never was.

Real-world policies–the kind that would appear in a party platform, or be embraced by competent grownups–can’t soothe those fears. The Republican Party has retreated to the only thing it has left: fantasy.

So they are ramping up the fear and telling us “those people” are to blame.