Tag Archives: public policy

Right Diagnosis; Wrong Prescription

I know that this blog tends to reiterate certain themes, but we all have our preoccupations. Those who are regular readers will recognize a couple of mine: the importance of “hiring” (electing or appointing) government officials who actually know something about government; and the critical difference between “what should we do?” and “how should we do it?”

The election of Donald Trump and his subsequent choice of cabinet officials has pretty emphatically made the case for my first premise. (There’s a Facebook meme to the effect of “If you think anyone can run  the government, I hope your next colonoscopy is performed by a plumber.”)

My second preoccupation–the difference between “what” and “how”– remains less obvious. I thought of it, however, when I read this column by Catherine Rampell in the Washington Post. As she points out, it’s one thing to correctly diagnose a problem. It’s quite another to devise a remedy that will solve the problem rather than inadvertently making it worse.

By all means, let’s raise the living standards of workers at Amazon, Walmart, McDonald’s and other employers of low-wage Americans.

And, by all means, let’s raise Jeffrey P. Bezos’s taxes, too. The founder of Amazon (and owner of The Post) is the wealthiest man in the world. He didn’t need the tax cut that Republicans just gave people like him.

But the sloppily designed Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies Act (a.k.a., ahem, the “Stop BEZOS Act”) is a terrible way to do either of these things. It’s virtually guaranteed to hurt the very low-income working families its sponsors want to help.

The bill Rampell is citing addresses an issue that I’ve written about several times: some of the nation’s largest companies (including Amazon) pay their workers so poorly that taxpayers make up the difference with food stamps and other social welfare benefits.. In effect, we are paying a portion of those workers’ wages. Meanwhile, the company’s  “savings” go to shareholders as additional profit.

It’s pretty despicable, and it should stop.

The “Stop Bezos Act” would establish a “corporate welfare tax” on firms with at least 500 employees. Companies would pay a tax equal to 100 percent of the value of safety-net benefits their employees receive, including Medicaid, housing subsidies, food stamps and subsidized school lunches.

That certainly sounds good. As Bernie Sanders, the bill’s sponsor, has said,

The working families and middle class of this country should not have to subsidize the wealthiest people in the United States of America. That’s what a rigged economy is all about.

Agreed. The diagnosis is spot on. The prescription, however, would be a disaster; it would hurt the very people it aims to help, because it would discourage firms from hiring workers suspected of drawing benefits.

These workers come, disproportionately, from some of the most vulnerable populations: families with children, older people and workers with disabilities.

Families with children are much more likely to use food stamps. Older Americans who are poor are much more likely to be on Medicaid. And workers with disabilities would face even more barriers to employment under this bill than they already do.

Under this bill, Medicaid-eligible workers with disabilities or other health issues would become thousands of dollars more expensive. Working-age people over 45, who cost Medicaid about twice as much as their younger counterparts, might face even more discrimination in the job market than they already do.

The bill tries to address these issues by barring employers from asking job candidates about benefits. But firms could easily infer which applicants are more likely to get them, based on their races, genders, Zip codes, etc. Such “statistical discrimination” would be difficult to police.

Moreover, employers get information about dependents and marital status when newly hired workers fill out their HR forms. Guess which workers would be at the top of the list when it’s time to downsize?….

Perhaps worst of all, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, the bill would ultimately create a new corporate constituency to push for cuts to social programs and stricter eligibility requirements. Suddenly, reductions to Medicaid or school lunches would be directly equivalent to a corporate tax cut.

This bill would also require new oversight, probably spawn multiple lawsuits alleging discrimination, raise equal protection issues (why treat companies with 500 employees differently than those with 480?) and generate numerous new regulations.

Simply raising the minimum wage would go a long way toward solving the problem without creating perverse incentives or requiring additional bureaucracy.

Stop Bezos is a great soundbite. We should do it. How we should do it, however, matters. A lot.

Why Politics Matters

Do you know folks who think political decisions don’t affect them? Who think voting is a waste of time? Among all of the other reasons they’re wrong, it turns out that a state’s political environment affects how long its residents live.

That was the astonishing conclusion of a study reported by Inc.The study ranked life expectancy in all 50 states, and came to some truly eye-opening conclusions. Among them: residents of Mississippi have the same life expectancy as residents of Bangladesh.

This truly is a fascinating study, pulling together reams of data to create “the most comprehensive state-by-state health assessment ever undertaken,” according to a press release. (The study itself was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.) It’s unusual because most big studies examine the United States as a whole, and yet there’s a vast disparity of health and longevity among the states.

The report itself focused primarily on the data, rather than on differences in the public policies of the various states, but the following excerpt from the Discussion section is illuminating on that score.

Mortality reversals in 21 states for adults ages 20 to 55 years are strongly linked to the burden of substance use disorders, cirrhosis, and self-harm, and this study shows that the trends for some of these conditions differ considerably across different states. Case and Deaton have called some of these conditions “deaths of despair” and argued that they are linked to the social and economic status of white US adults.

States differ widely in their support of interventions to curb substance and alcohol abuse, and in the availability of programs addressing those dependencies. As far as the statistics on “self-harm,” the language is guarded, but clear: “self-harm” is suicide, and most people who kill themselves use a gun.

The availability of guns is a huge public health issue, and medical and public-health professionals have been arguing for a public health approach to gun violence more  forcefully in recent years. The American Public Health Association and the American Medical Association have both issued statements calling gun violence a public-health problem, and advocating more research. (The “Dickey Amendment,” passed by Congress in 1996, effectively prohibited the CDC from even studying the issue.)

The larger “take away” from the data is economic. States where the percentages of low-income Americans are highest have higher incidences of alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide. It shouldn’t come as a shock that Mississippi, where citizens have poor health outcomes also has an economy that ranks in the bottom of American states.

The environment also plays a part: states that do a better job of controlling hazards like lead and coal ash, for example, reduce illnesses and deaths from avoidable environmental pollutants.

All of these influences on lifespan–the economic health of a state, the efficacy of local environmental protection, the easy availability of guns–are direct outcomes of the  public policies supported by state and local lawmakers. (It will not shock anyone who follows these issues that the states with the worst outcomes tend to be reliably Republican.)

If the disaster that is Donald Trump hasn’t brought home the importance of voting, perhaps explaining to the disengaged that local political policies have a demonstrable effect on our lifespans and those of our families and friends will do the trick.

 

And Now A Word From the Fantasy-Based Community

I read Dispatches from the Culture Wars regularly. Ed Brayton is a witty and perceptive commentator with an excellent grasp of America’s constitutional foundations–but his greatest appeal (for me) comes from the fact that he monitors behaviors that I wouldn’t have the stomach to follow. He keeps tabs on the kooks of the far, far right (and sometimes the far, far left)–the “celebrities” of the wacko fringes.

Most of the time, when reading about the pronouncements and delusions of these characters, I take comfort in reminding myself of the limited appeal of whatever brand of crazy a particular figure is peddling.

But this was truly appalling.

Earlier this month, the city of San Antonio (Texas) held a mayoral forum in which candidates talked about the impact of and challenges for non-profit groups in the community.

At one point, current Mayor Ivy Taylor was asked about the “deepest systemic cause of generational poverty.” There’s no simple answer to that, of course, but Taylor’s response wasn’t even close.

“Not even close” is an understatement. Here’s the Mayor’s response.

To me, it’s broken people. People not being in a relationship with their Creator, and therefore, not being in good relationship with their families and their communities, and not being productive members of society. I think that’s the ultimate answer.

As Ed points out, that not only isn’t the “ultimate answer,” it’s an answer that betrays vast ignorance of American economic realities and that displays the sort of breathtakingly smug religious arrogance that you encounter from time to time from people who give religion a very bad name. As Brayton puts it,

Poor people aren’t all poor because they’re “broken” or atheists or in need of a better relationship with their families. (While we’re at it, they’re also not poor because they’re lazy and addicted to welfare checks.)

People are poor, in many cases, because they don’t have opportunities to put their skills to work, they never had access to a quality education, and they live in areas where upward mobility is hard to come by. In some cases, they can work multiple jobs with little sleep and still have a hard time getting out of whatever debt they’re already in. Poverty is tough to overcome. Generational poverty, even tougher.

The vast majority of poor Americans work 40 or more hours a week at jobs that don’t pay a living wage. (Not that it is relevant, but a sizable majority of them identify as Christian, and profess a “relationship” with a “Creator.” Atheists in the U.S. actually tend to be well-educated and financially comfortable–when you aren’t constantly struggling to put food on the table, you have the time and resources to ponder theological questions and consider counter-majoritarian conclusions…But I digress.)

I’ve written before about the United Way of Indiana’s description of ALICE families (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) and the huge gap between what those families need simply in order to survive and the pitifully inadequate public and private resources available to them.

There are a lot of things policymakers could do to decrease poverty: raise the minimum wage, reinstitute Reagan-era tax brackets, strengthen unions, eliminate the ACA in favor of “Medicare for All”…and jettison a self-satisfied ideology that blames poverty on a lack of productivity and an inadequate “relationship with the Creator.”

The fact that Americans elect people who mouth such inanities (beginning with Donald Trump and definitely including Mayor Ivy Taylor) is evidence of a different kind of poverty.

 

 

 

Complicated Problems, Bumper-Sticker Solutions

A recent column in the New York Times reminded me (as if such a reminder was needed!) of American lawmakers’ penchant for “solving” problems by passing “quick and dirty” laws that may placate a constituency, but do little to actually solve the problem at hand–and often do considerable collateral damage.

A particularly pernicious example is the one highlighted by the Times, 

a wave of laws around the country restricting where people convicted of sex offenses may live — in many cases, no closer than 2,500 feet from schools, playgrounds, parks or other areas where children gather. In some places, these “predator-free zones” put an entire town or county off limits, sometimes for life, even for those whose offenses had nothing to do with children.

Protecting children from sexual abuse is, of course, a paramount concern. But there is not a single piece of evidence that these laws actually do that. For one thing, the vast majority of child sexual abuse is committed not by strangers but by acquaintances or relatives. And residency laws drive tens of thousands of people to the fringes of society, forcing them to live in motels, out of cars or under bridges. The laws apply to many and sometimes all sex offenders, regardless of whether they were convicted for molesting a child or for public urination.

I vividly remember a friend’s anguish when his younger brother–who had just turned eighteen–was placed on Indiana’s sex offender registry for “molesting” his sixteen-year-old girlfriend, despite her protests that she had initiated their voluntary encounter.

I understand the desire to “do something” when a genuine molestation occurs. I understand the pressure on lawmakers to respond to a parent’s demand for action (particularly when that parent is politically active or connected). But at some point, everyone needs to take a deep breath and recognize the unintended–and pernicious– consequences of “solutions” created by people who fail to understand the complexity and dimensions of the problem.

A Thought Experiment

Sometimes, it’s useful to step outside our usual political debates about programs and policies, about this or that candidate or pundit or official, and think a bit about a more basic question–perhaps the most basic question facing any society: how should we live together?

In my graduate Law and Public Affairs class, we spend a semester considering the American answer to that question. We discuss the effect of Enlightenment philosophy on our understanding of the role of the state, we examine the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and the constraints those documents impose on policy formation, and we take a closer look at current policy debates through that lens. Well and good–the stated purpose of the class is to give public affairs students an appreciation of the myriad ways our legal system shapes our policies.

But every so often, I give an exam with multiple questions from which students can choose (“write an essay on one of the following questions…”), and among the choices, I include one that poses the following scenario:  Earth has been destroyed in WWIII. You and a few thousand other inhabitants, representing a cross-section of nationalities, cultures, races and religions, have escaped to an M-Class planet. (I’m a Star Trek fan. Sue me.) Create a new government.

The question instructs students to identify the values they will privilege, the measures they will take to ensure stability, etc.

The point of the question is to shake students’ tendency to think that the world they inhabit is the only world possible; to get them to question structures and processes they take for granted, and to think about more basic questions. Typically, those who choose to answer my “science fiction” question, rather than the more mundane alternatives (immigration, taxation, environmental issues, etc.) are the better students, although even among them there are plenty who simply fashion their new world government after that of the U.S.,who simply  replicate the world they inhabit, albeit with minor changes. (Most would get rid of the electoral college, for example.) Over the years, however, I have gotten some truly inspired answers–funny, thoughtful, creative approaches to that fundamental question of how humans should construct our social order.

The answer someone gives to that question is a pretty good clue to what they truly value–not to mention to their ability to understand what can and cannot be expected to work in a world composed of real, diverse and quarrelsome humans.

What “new world order” would you create, if you had the chance?