Tag Archives: Peter the Citizen

Watch Your Language

I think it was Tallyrand who said “speech was given to man to conceal his thoughts.” Political spinmeisters, advertising executives and faux scholars are proving him prescient; they have perfected the use of language to label and deceive, rather than communicate.

The following paragraph is typical (no link, as I have forgotten where I got it):

The Sanders-led progressive movement has successfully tugged the party to the left, bringing ideas that seemed fringe in 2016 to the center of the mainstream Democratic agenda. Many of the party’s presidential hopefuls now embrace some of the biggest planks of the Sanders platform, from Medicare for All to legalizing marijuana to rejecting corporate donations.

A genuine Leftist–vanishingly rare in the U.S.–would laugh at the suggestion that universal health care (once proposed by Richard Nixon), sane drug policies based upon sound medical research, and campaign finance reform (championed by John McCain) are somehow “far Left.” But that’s the state of political discourse in America these days, where ideology and animus trump both evidence and the careful use of language.

Peter the Citizen, an expert on social welfare programs to whom I’ve previously cited, recently sent me a good example of the way it works. (Peter is hardly a bleeding heart liberal–he worked in the Reagan White House. He just believes that research projects should be designed to find answers to questions, not manipulated in order to confirm pre-existing biases.) The issue was whether recipients of certain social programs should be required to work in order to qualify for benefits.

He wrote:”I believe work requirements can be a useful policy tool, but they must be reasonable, realistic, and based on sound evidence.  Too much of the debate today ignores these factors and is based on misreading the credible evidence that exists (i.e., the random assignment experiments of welfare-to-work programs) or, even worse, relies on studies with fundamentally flawed methods.

“How effective are work requirements?,” a paper by Angela Rachidi and Robert Doar of the American Enterprise Institute, came in for special scorn. The authors purport to find evidence that “largely supports” extending work requirements to non-cash programs like SNAP  and Medicaid, and they argue that critics of work requirements have “misread” and “misrepresented” this research.

As Peter notes,

It turns out that it is Angela and Robert who have misread the evidence.  They mischaracterize the arguments of “critics” of work requirements, misinterpret the results of random assignment experiments, and then over-generalize from a limited number of demonstration projects to make claims about work requirement proposals that would operate on a much larger scale, for different programs and populations, and with different levels of funding.

Peter’s paper critiquing this “research,” can be found here.

Peter also referenced an article titled “They’re the think tank pushing for welfare work requirements. Republicans say they’re experts. Economists call it ‘junk science,’” by Caitlin Dewey of The Washington Post. In the article, Dewey described the newfound influence of a think-tank named Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) (given the name–the label– I assume its an offshoot of that well-known organization “Grandmas and Kittens for Good Government.”)

But hey–they are saying what Paul Ryan and the Koch Brothers want to hear, so they must be legit, right?

House Republicans – including [Speaker] Ryan, who was introduced to the group in 2016 through Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback – have repeatedly proffered the FGA’s analysis as proof that most Americans support strict work rules in welfare programs and that such rules boost income and employment.

While the FGA’s “studies” have support among some politicians, their work is not seen as credible by serious observers.  To understand why, it is informative to compare their methodological approach for making claims about the impacts of work requirements (and other welfare reform policies) with generally accepted criteria for assessing the soundness of an evaluation.

In 1997, Peter co-authored a monograph with Doug Besharov and Peter Rossi – Evaluating Welfare Reform: A Guide for Scholars and Practitioners – which described and explained those “generally accepted criteria.”  Peter applied the criteria the to the FGA’s “research,”  and developed the following “report card”: “How Do the Foundation for Government Accountability’s Evaluations of Welfare Reform Measure Up? A Report Card (Hint: The FGA Fails)”: https://mlwiseman.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Evaluating-Welfare-Reform.pdf

In 1984, Orwell introduced the concept of “Newspeak,” language imposed by the governing Party. The purpose of Newspeak was to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits “proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, (the Party ruling Oceana)”– and simultaneously to make all other modes of thought impossible.

The “alternative facts,” of Trumpworld, politicians’ increasing use of language to obfuscate and label rather than inform, and the bastardized “research” of zealots and ideologues are creating an environment in which their version of Newspeak displaces actual conversation and distorts reality.

We. need to watch our language.

 

 

 

Polling The Uninformed

Polling isn’t the same thing as survey research. The latter relies on field-tested questions and careful selection of a quantity of respondents sufficient to provide a statistically-valid result. Very few polls meet those standards.

Within the category of opinion polling, there are large discrepancies in the reliability of the information gathered. (Just ask Harry Truman or Hillary Clinton.) Some of those discrepancies occur despite good-faith but flawed efforts of pollsters; some occur because limited resources required methodological shortcuts. Too many are just garbage, generated by “pollsters” trying to peddle snake-oil of one sort or another.

My virtual friend Peter the Citizen recently shared a glaring example of snake-oil polling.

Readers may recall my previous references to Peter; he was an official in the Reagan administration–and remains an example of the intellectually-honest conservatives we’ve mostly lost. His area of expertise (back when government work demanded actual knowledge of what the hell you were doing) was welfare policy. He has consistently  debunked the assertion that TANF, the so-called “welfare reform” constantly touted by Paul Ryan and others, was a success. As he points out,

TANF is not “welfare reform” at all, but a flexible funding stream that has failed to provide an adequate safety net or an effective welfare-to-work program. In many states, it has become a slush fund used to supplant state spending and fill budget holes.

As GOP lawmakers seek to impose draconian work requirements on recipients of various social welfare programs, Peter reminds us that TANF’s work requirements are a” notable example of misguided policymaking– unreasonable, dysfunctional, and not about work.”

The real target of this particular paper, however, is the GOP’s reliance on polling to “prove” that work requirements are favored by the majority of Americans, including those on welfare–to buttress their argument that “work-capable” adults should be required to work in return for benefits. As one conservative proponent put it,

 

Voters are demanding that policymakers pursue welfare reforms that can move millions of able-bodied adults from welfare to work.”

As Peter notes, even people who support reasonable work requirements–and he counts himself as one of them– have balked at the recent attempts to add punitive provisions to SNAP and other programs. Some of the “pesky details” that pollsters don’t bother to provide to respondents are: who is to be considered “able-bodied?” Are jobs available? Is transportation? What about recipients with small children at home, or those acting as caretakers for disabled relatives?

And what about the cost of creating and monitoring this new set of rules? As Peter points out, passage of these requirements would force states to create new bureaucracies to monitor the millions of SNAP recipients to determine whether they are subject to the requirements and, if so, whether they satisfy them–but the proposal doesn’t provide any funding to support those new bureaucrats.

In the absence of context–the absence of information about these and similar “details”– responses to such polls are meaningless.

The poll questions reported verbatim in the linked paper reminded me vividly of a meeting I attended many years ago, where a state legislator from northeast Indiana shared the results of a “poll” he’d taken, the results of which “proved” that his constituents were firmly against abortion. The question–and I am not making this up–was “do you approve of killing babies?”

 

I bet I know what the poll results would be if we asked Americans “Do you approve of giving new tax breaks to rich people who are already being taxed at a lower marginal rate than Warren Buffet’s secretary?” How about “Should we let children starve if their parents don’t satisfy SNAP work requirements?”

The only thing such poll questions prove is the truth of something I learned in law school: he who frames the question wins the debate.

Labels Aren’t Analyses

Not long ago, in response to one of my periodic posts decrying policies that ignore evidence in favor of ideology, I got an email from Peter Germanis, who writes as “Peter the Citizen” and  takes the unusual approach of evaluating policies on the basis of whether they actually work, rather than whether they are labeled conservative or liberal.

Peter attached an exchange from Poverty and Public Policy that reproduced three of his articles on poverty and welfare.

Peter’s background certainly entitles him to his chosen label, which is conservative: between 1986 and 1996, he helped President Reagan develop and implement his welfare reform policies, and he has worked with the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, both of which are  very conservative advocacy and research organizations.

Here are some of the things Peter says about TANF, the much-ballyhooed “bipartisan welfare reform” that is considered a great success by Paul Ryan and others intent upon reducing expenditures on social welfare.

  • The suggestion that TANF helps people out of poverty is–by any objective analysis–wrong.
  • TANF is not welfare reform; it is welfare to states, not the needy.
  • TANF is really revenue sharing; states use a considerable share of TANF funds to supplant state expenditures.

Peter points to Texas as an example of how TANF actually works. He notes that in 2014, for every 100 poor families with children, only five received TANF cash assistance, and the state invests little of its TANF block grant to provide education, training or work supports for the working poor. In fiscal year 2014, Texas used just 20% of its TANF funds to provide what Peter designates as “core welfare reform activities”–basic assistance, work activities and child care.”

In the wake of the election, Paul Ryan and the House Republicans plan to apply TANF’s “success” to other social welfare programs, and they have issued a proposal along those lines titled “A Better Way.” As Peter writes,

The Task Force’s Report for reforming the safety net is a seriously flawed document–it would not solve problems, it would add to them…As described above TANF is not “welfare reform”; it is not a “success” it is Truly a National Failure (TANF). The fact that conservatives do not understand this suggests that they do not have “A Better Way”–they have “The Wrong Way.”

Conservatives like Peter the Citizen represent a once-vibrant and now-dwindling strand of intellectually honest conservatism, and the recognition that the labels we employ–liberal, conservative, libertarian, socialist–are frequently short-hand for categorizing and discarding (or embracing) policies without bothering to evaluate them. More of his work can be accessed at this link.

Perhaps I am cynical, but I think there is one other difference between the bygone conservatism of people like Peter and what passes for conservatism today. The conservatives who used to be engaged with poverty policy genuinely wanted to help poor people. They might disagree with liberals about the best way to go about it, but the shared goal was to enable impoverished Americans to become self-sufficient. Today’s “conservatives” aren’t simply uninterested in honest analysis; they are uninterested in actually helping poor people. Their idea of “success” is spending less money on social welfare so that they can reduce taxes on the wealthy.

Because after all, poor people don’t vote, don’t contribute and don’t employ lobbyists.