Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

Yang Was Right

The Guardian recently ran a headline that made me chuckle: “California Mayor Has Tried Universal Basic Income. His advice to Trump: Go Big.” The chuckle wasn’t due to the California Mayor’s conclusions about Universal Basic Income (UBI); it was a response to the demonstrably ridiculous idea that Trump would take advice from anyone about anything.

As federal lawmakers continued to squabble over the form of the zillion-dollar intervention(s) that are clearly required if we are to have any chance at all to avert a depression, the Mayor of Stockton, California was the latest to sing the praises of a UBI–the proposal that formed the centerpiece of Andrew Yang’s Presidential campaign.

Stockton launched a basic income experiment last year, and Michael Tubbs, Stockton’s mayor, has become an ardent advocate of providing direct cash assistance to people.

The idea of providing a universal basic income to citizens is not new, but it has found new supporters in recent years, as some tech industry leaders have embraced “UBI” as a possible response to rising inequality and a growing number of American jobs lost to automation. The Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes is among the proponents of the policy; the Economic Security Project, which he co-chairs, is helping fund basic income experiments in Stockton and elsewhere.

Stockton is just the latest in a global string of experiments with no-strings cash assistance. Results of those experiments have been extremely positive, as is the early data from this one, according to the academic researchers  running the evaluation of the program.

“If you give people free cash, how do they spend it? They’re very rational about it, and they make great decisions,” said Stacia Martin-West, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee College of Social Work and one of the lead researchers.

Labor leader Andrew Stern has pointed out that, with a UBI, in contrast to welfare, there’s no phase-out, no marriage penalties, no people falsifying information. And support for the concept isn’t limited to 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, it raises 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. Today’s work
environment is characterized by vestigial unions and the growth of the “gig economy.” Employee bargaining power has 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. And what wage gains there have been have mostly flowed to the highest-paid tier of workers.”

If the U.S. had a UBI and single payer health coverage, workers would have the freedom to leave abusive employers, unsafe work conditions, and uncompetitive pay scales. A UBI might not level the playing field–but it would sure reduce the tilt.

It is 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.

This is all, of course, pie in the sky so long as we have a self-absorbed, monumentally ignorant, mentally-ill President, and a Republican Senate led by the irredeemably  corrupt Mitch McConnell. It remains to be seen how the Coronavirus pandemic will affect November’s election, but if these men–representing the utter detritus of humanity–are still in office in January, the lack of a rational social-safety net will be the least of our problems.

Endorsing Warrenism

Wil Wilkinson had an interesting column in The New York Times a while back.His general thesis is pretty well summarized in this paragraph:

Democrats are hungry for reform, not revolution. To oust Mr. Trump and especially to govern effectively, Democrats need a fighting creed that avoids both Mr. Biden’s blinkered complacency and Mr. Sanders’s quixotic hand-waving. She may be gone from the race, but Elizabeth Warren has a plan for that. Democrats should pick up the fallen flag of Warren-ism and run.

Wilkinson points to the uncomfortable truths that sentient Americans now recognize–our government is increasingly corrupt, and that corruption isn’t confined to the Trump crime syndicate ensconced at the White House.  It has been building for many years.

A self-reinforcing spiral of regulatory capture, self-dealing and influence-peddling has led to intensely concentrated power that is at once economic and political. That concentrated power has rigged the rules that define the structure of America’s democracy and economy to the advantage of the powerful at the expense of ordinary Americans. This has deprived us of our most vital means of collective self-defense: meaningful democratic control over the institutions that shape our lives. Unless we fight to unrig the system, millions of us will continue to live and die on the terms of unaccountable power.

Wilkinson notes that while Warren’s “I have a plan” approach is seen as less revolutionary than Bernie’s inflexible socialism, it is for that very reason more threatening to the plutocrats who benefit from our systemic distortions, because it’s much more realistic about the way things actually work– the political and economic incentives that ultimately determine who gets what and how much.

I personally support what Wilkinson calls “Warrenism”–especially her hostility to the gerrymandering, voter-ID laws, felon disenfranchisement and the filibuster that rig the system and make a mockery of equal representation.

Warrenism grasps what many other Democrats (like Mr. Biden) don’t: Liberalism is on the ropes because it became complacent about power. We liberals got ahead of ourselves and began to take the institutions of inclusive, liberal-democratic capitalism for granted — despite the fact that our first serious strides toward full democratic equality were taken well within living memory. The collapse of Communism made us think we’d won for good, and we became fixated on tweaks to liberal institutions to enhance economic efficiency or make them better conform to academic ideals of distributive justice rather than tackling their deep-seated structural and procedural flaws.

Read that paragraph again, because it identifies our greatest challenge: our inability as citizens to recognize the dangers of complacency, and our obligation to consistently participate in the political process. No political contest is ever won or lost for good. Apathy is always dangerous, not least because when people finally wake up to the mischief done to democracy while they were “checked out,” they too often respond by over-reacting (what we used to call “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”)

That’s why I hope Elizabeth Warren stays in the Senate, where she has been so effective and can move that body (hopefully, under new leadership) in the right direction. I know many fans want to see her as Vice-Presidential candidate, but as John Nance Garner reportedly said,” being Vice-President isn’t worth a bucket of warm spit.”

Elizabeth Warren’s great talent is her ability to offer studied and calibrated solutions to the complex structural problems that bedevil us. She has produced what Wilkinson calls a “tough-minded agenda for returning control to the democratic citizenry,” and he says that while we are arguing among ourselves about whether the rise of populist nationalism is due to economic or racial anxieties (or both), whether we need a universal basic income,  or whether the fine print of Bernie’s Medicare for All Plan is the best way to achieve universal health care, we haven’t been doing the most important thing–“rallying for a dogfight.”

The fat cats who currently benefit from our structural distortions won’t simply retreat from the field, even if–as I fervently hope– there is a massive “blue wave.” It’s important to know where we want to go–but it is equally, if not more, important to have a plan for getting there.


Anti-Intellectualism Will Get Us Killed

A friend sent me a Ted Talk given by Bill Gates in 2015.

If you haven’t already seen it–evidently, several million people have–you need to watch it before proceeding to the blog rant it triggered, below. It’s only slightly over seven minutes, and it’s worth it.

Are you back? Good.

As we are now learning, the Trump administration didn’t just ignore warnings from people like Bill Gates, who knows whereof he speaks because his foundation is deeply involved in issues of global health. The Trump Administration ignored alerts from medical experts, dismissed Intelligence briefings warning of the imminence of the threat, and failed to listen to warnings from Obama officials during transition briefings.

It was behavior entirely consistent with Trump’s war on intellect, science and expertise-the only war this disastrous “President” is winning, as he disassembles federal agencies retaining even a hint of expertise or effectiveness.

Talking Points Memo began a recent report with a sentence that should chill us:

The 20-year Capitol Hill veteran is gone. The 20-somethings remain.

The report detailed the abrupt resignation of Dale Cabaniss, the most recent director of  the Office of Personnel Management. (As with most agencies under Trump, senior officials change with the seasons…)

According to “several reports”garnered from the most leaky White House in most of our lifetimes, there were two reasons for the departure: first, Trump’s persistent efforts to eliminate OPM entirely, and second, the parade of seasoned officials who have been replaced with “a pack of mostly 20-somethings employed by the White House to, more or less, police political officials for loyalty to the President.”

Now, I have long maintained that it is time for generational change; I supported Mayor Pete before he dropped out of the Presidential race. But the “twenty-somethings” installed by Trump in the highest reaches of the administration are far–far–from the educated and talented members of the younger generation represented by Mayor Pete.

The “twenty-something” placed in charge of Presidential Personnel was John McEntee — a 29-year-old who used to be Trump’s body-man. (“Body man” is apparently polite-speak for “goon acting as bodyguard”) and who was only recently given his new title, more than a year after departing his previous job by Trump’s side.” The “skill” McEntee brought to his new gig? Making viral videos showing his football skills.

Axios reported in February that Trump had empowered McEntee to purge “bad people” and the “Deep State” — meaning, those who don’t sufficiently support Trump.

Since his hiring, McEntee has brought on an even less experienced coterie: First, 23-year-old George Washington University senior James Bacon.

Another temporary hire at the Presidential Personnel Office, per Politico, is John Troup Hemenway, who’s expected to graduate from the University of Virginia in December. Hemenway will reportedly help with paperwork for Defense Department political appointees.

And then there’s Anthony Labruna, an Iowa State student who was recently named a deputy White House liaison for the Department of Commerce.

And that’s where we’re left: In the midst of a global pandemic, a crisis that’s thrown the government into chaos, the experienced pro at the top of the government’s H.R. department is gone. But the shallow state that helped push her out remains.

Time to re-read Hofstadter’s classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, in which he investigated the roots of the deep and persistent animus toward knowledge and expertise displayed by  people like Trump–and for that matter, most of today’s GOP.

These people– who disdain as “elitists” the individuals most qualified by education and experience to address the issues we face, and who prefer to listen instead to talking heads who substitute loud certitude for knowledge–may end up being responsible for more deaths than history’s bloodiest tyrants.




The Importance Of The “Golden Mean”

I was struck by an observation recently posted to a listserv on which I participate.

Someone had observed that draconian restrictions imposed by the Chinese seemed to have “flattened the curve” and slowed transmission in that country. He wondered whether Americans would comply with similar directives, and someone else responded that the U.S. is a very individualistic society, built on the idea of individual rights, so, this would be a big test: Would people in America sacrifice some individual liberty for the good of the community? Asian societies, he noted “are more based on the group, the collective. Which is why these kinds of measures are more accepted there.”


Every couple of years I teach an undergraduate course titled “Individual Rights and the Common Good,” exploring just this tradeoff. It is essentially a course in political philosophy, focused on the proper balance between the individual’s right to autonomy and the communitarian’s concern for the well-being of the broader society–and the very thorny issue of who gets to decide?

Who gets to decide what the “common good” looks like? What sorts of decisions should individuals get to make, free of government interference or coercion? What sorts of situations should give government the right to overrule individual preferences?

This year, I have been particularly gratified with my students’ enthusiasm for these questions; they have really engaged with the sometimes difficult readings, and in impressively thoughtful ways.

The purpose of the class isn’t to produce consensus; it is to raise appreciation for the complexities involved and the dangers of what I think of as American “bipolarism.” In the U.S., we have a regrettable tendency to see all debates as two–and only two–sided: this or that approach is either all wrong or all right. (Or as George W. Bush would put it, the world is divided between the “good guys” and the “evildoers.”)

If only life–especially political life– were that simple!

The Greeks had a concept of the “golden mean”-a middle ground between the extremes of excess and deficiency. Achieving that middle ground, however, would require abandoning America’s love affair with “all or nothing” politics, where every concession to reality or complexity is labeled selling-out, where ideologues on the Left and Right alike prefer no bread at all to settling for half a loaf, and where the perfect (as they and only they define perfection) is the constant enemy of the good.

We can see this playing out in the battle over “socialism.” Not only is it apparent that the combatants are operating under wildly different definitions of the term, but neither the free-market folks nor the collectivists seem to understand that the the answer is both. Every economy that is currently working (or was working before the pandemic) is a mixed economy, in which some aspects are “socialized” and others are left to the market. The issue isn’t “socialism or capitalism”? The issue is the much harder question “which goods and services must be provided collectively and which should be provided by the private sector?–and why?”

(I’ll also note that while the unedifying capitalism/socialism argument is center stage, less attention is being paid to the fact that what the U.S. increasingly has isn’t free-market capitalism–it’s corporatism. And that’s a big problem.)

Aristotle raised the fundamental question with which political philosophy and political systems must contend: What sort of society best promotes human flourishing?

Answering that question, of course, requires that we agree on what human flourishing looks like, and what governmental or social mechanisms are most likely encourage it…These aren’t easy questions, and as we stare into a potential abyss, I’m getting pretty impatient with the pontificating ideologues who are stubbornly unwilling to understand–or engage with– the real and complicated world we inhabit.


Let Me Count The Ways…

On Facebook, Trump apologists are posting angry rebuttals to complaints about the administration’s incompetent response to the Coronavirus pandemic. You can’t blame a president for a disease! This could have happened during any administration! Your criticism is just an example of Trump Derangement Syndrome. Etc.

(I like to think of “Trump Derangement Syndrome” as an accurate description of the Dear Leader’s mental state, but I assume that isn’t what his base intends it to mean…)

Although it is absolutely true that no president can control the timing or severity of a pandemic, a paragraph in Dana Milbank’s column Thursday in the Washington Post actually, factually, described many of the ways in which the Deranged One has made this pandemic much worse for Americans than it should have been.

Milbank neglected to mention what was by far Trump’s worst decision; in his zeal to undo anything and everything his black predecessor had done, early in his administration Trump eliminated the team Obama had charged with preparing for pandemics–and he didn’t replace them, despite several warnings that such a pandemic was likely.

There was also no mention of Trump’s inexplicable–and unforgivable– refusal to accept test kits offered by WHO.

Milbank did remind readers that Trump has depleted the government of scientific expertise–something I’ve repeatedly blogged about.  He also noted that the President has done “little to heed warnings to prepare for a pandemic”– a needlessly gentle way of describing Trump’s hostility to people who know what they are talking about, and his absolute refusal to listen to anyone about anything, expert or not.

Milbank says that Trump blocked Congress from conducting meaningful oversight. That actually might be unfair; Trump is so inept when it comes to dealing with Congress, he could not have blocked oversight without the slavish assistance of Mitch McConnell (aka the most evil man in America) and the Congressional GOP. But Milbank is clearly correct about Trump’s repeated efforts to cut funding for public health and medical research, and about the way in which the chaos and constant turnover in the administration has eroded competence.

His reckless stimulus legislation during an economic boom and his badgering of the Federal Reserve to lower interest rates left few fiscal and monetary tools to stop the ongoing economic panic. His constant stream of falsehoods misled the nation about the threat of the virus and contributed to a delayed, haphazard response. His administration badly misjudged the impact of the virus and was claiming until just a couple of weeks ago that it would require no additional government spending.

Milbank is also correct when he asserts that the bungled handling of the virus is exactly the sort of mismanagement that should disqualify Trump from reelection. But tell that to the bigots and crazies who support him.

The Guardian recently had an article looking at the reaction of Trump’s far right supporters–titled, appropriately, “Disinformation and Scapegoating.”

Apocalyptic narratives – whether of societal collapse, biblical rapture, or race war – are the central way that the a spectrum of far-right movements draw in followers and resources. These narratives use fear to draw followers closer, allowing leaders to direct their followers’ actions, and maybe fleece them blind.

The article details the responses of people and groups on the fringes of politics and sanity–Alex Jones, the survivalists, the televangelists hawking “sure cures,” and Trump’s biggest fans, the Neo-Nazis.

Farther out on the neo-Nazi right, in the Telegram channels where “accelerationists” – who seek to hasten the end of liberal democracy in order to build a white ethnostate – overlap with “ecofascists” – who propose genocidal solutions to ecological problems – groups are openly talking about how to use the crisis to recruit people to terroristic white supremacy.

And of course, the far-right is feverishly concocting conspiracy theories about the causes and origins of the virus–theories that scapegoat immigrants, minorities and liberals. (Alex Jones, for example, claims that Covid-19 is a human-made bioweapon, produced by the Chinese government to bring Trump down.)

Most Americans are responding to this unprecedented challenge with generosity and kindness–looking in on neighbors, buying gift certificates from closed restaurants to provide owners with some much-needed income, sharing credible information and comfort. Then there are are the Trump apologists–those simply refusing to hold him accountable for the government’s delayed and incompetent response, and those inventing theories that absolve him of responsibility while further endangering the rest of us.

Maybe it takes a pandemic to show us who we are.